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Can You Build Muscle Size Using Functional Training Methods?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 20 January 2022
Hits: 818

I believe most people are aware of the amazing benefits to their body by using more functional training exercises over machines and various isolation exercises for improving movement in daily life and sports. I have posted numerous articles and videos explaining this concept in great detail for many years and the knowledge and education of this is training method much better than what it was 10-15 years ago. However, there still is a misconception that these exercises might make you move better and prevent injuries but they will not make you improve muscular strength and in particular hypertrophy (muscle size). There are several reasons why people fail to put on muscle size when using a functional training approach but what you will find it is not the exercises that are to blame. In this article I will show you exactly what you need to know to improve your movement efficiency and muscle size if that is something you are wanting to do.

Why Should You Use Functional Training Methods To Build Muscle?

While it is great to look good in a mirror with a well chiselled muscular physique, there is no point to this if you cannot move well or have pain. Exercise is important to us more than ever as we have slowly progressed to more sedentary lifestyles. One hundred years ago we did not need gyms as we were forced to walk everywhere, most jobs were very physical and even home life demanded rigorous activity.

We need exercise to constantly maintain our skills of balance, mobility and strength to ensure life’s demands do not exceed our physical ability. The point of strength training is stress the neuromuscular system and demand it to overcome the load within a functional movement pattern so that it enhances our ability to move in life.

You should never sacrifice movement for fitness or muscle size! This is compromising your health and you will pay a big price for that later on.

When people look to get in shape they believe that moving well will just happen. All they have to do is get out there and get it done and the body will fix itself. Unfortunately it won’t. And movement problems will only get worse when compounded by frequency and volume of training. With regards to strength training modern fitness equipment allows us to train our body in sitting positions that do not demand high levels of coordination, stability, and posture. As a result people believe it is possible to avoid learning fundamental movement skills before lifting loads or moving fast and the principle of “earning the right” is not needed.

Someone can load up the leg press and start lifting incredible loads on the first day, yet be barely able to complete an effective squat with their own body-weight that demands stability and coordination. The lack of stability and coordination is often where injuries occur and we must all take the time to learn how to move before imposing stress of strength training to our body.

A great video that explains functional training is shown below.

You can read more about this in the article – Functional movement is everything and this is why

Understanding the Different Types of Strength Training

Strength means different things to different people. The way a weight lifter looks at strength training is completely different to how a football player looks at strength training or a female participating in a Pilates class. There are many different strength types. Knowing what the different strength types are, and what type is most suitable to your goal is critical in achieving the results you are looking for.

1. Strength Endurance 

This method is where you see aerobic fitness become a factor with strength exercises and is great for most sports people and people looking for athletic fitness. This type of training gives you the ability to develop muscles’ ability to produce repeated contractions under conditions of fatigue. A combination of slow-twitch & fast twitch fibres are used here. Great for building a foundation on which to build power and greater maximum strength. This type of training is used a lot with many group fitness classes and circuit based programs like F45 and CrossFit.

Sets and reps with this method can vary a lot but often they are very low intensity and last for long periods of time.

2. Power

This is another area used extensively in sports requiring that explosive burst of speed. A much more complex style of training and not often used by many amateurs due to the high level of skill and expertise. Exercises with medicine balls and plyometric agility training make up a big part of this method with a real focus on fast twitch fibre development to enable fast and powerful movements to be produced.

This is an area many people do not understand very well and often use loads too great which reduces power development. Power training requires lighter loads than maximal strength in order to move explosively as most athletic movements do not involve slow contractions at near maximum force, but require more mid-to-high velocity.

This method will often use 4-6 sets of 6-8 reps at high velocity.

Read our detailed article about Power training for more information on this if you play sports.

3. Maximal Strength 

As the name suggests this is training to lift as heavy as possible and places massive amount of stress on the nervous system which is why you often see your arms or legs shake during exercises with this intensity. The big difference between maximal strength and muscle size is this type of training recruits more motor units within the muscles as opposed to damaging muscle fibres. The more motor units you have, the stronger you become. You may not even improve muscle size that much but your overall strength will be much greater.

Multiple sets between 4 and 10 are often used with the reps always between 1 and 5.

To ensure quality of work and not compromising the load lifted long rest periods between each set are essential. As with power this has a real focus on fast-twitch muscle fibres and is really only for experienced lifters with great technique as this training comes with obvious risks due to the extreme loads.

Lastly, we have muscle size.

4. Muscle Size

This is the most common form of training used in gyms today and the main focus of body-builders. Focus is obviously on creating larger muscle size and methods used are often very slowly performed reps to create a long time under tension and muscle fibre damage. They need a lot of exercises to target individual muscles and as a result require incredible amount of time to complete their programs. Not only is this time inefficient for most people it can create a lot of potential problems with joint stability and muscle balance.

A lot of attention is given to eccentric phases with slow temps of 3-5 second lowering to make each set last a long time with the muscle under incredible tension. Due to the length of time each set takes to complete this greatly compromises the ability of the neuromuscular system to develop maximal and functional strength. This is because the slow timing disrupts the timing nervous system is programmed to operate with efficiency and secondly the lighter loads do not recruit more motor units within the muscles as seen with maximal strength training.

Sets and reps used with this method are often 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of strength work how do you put this information together to build size?

Based on the summary of the different strength types you would think it would be best to only use the last one, working slow with 3 sets of 8-12 reps. The big problem with this is that it this will ruin your ability to move efficiently.

Many movements and certain exercises work best when they move fast! Deliberately moving too slowly to force time under tension and increase muscle size also forces extra workloads to joints or muscles that should not feel it. This increases you chance of muscle imbalance and ultimately injury as your movement becomes more dysfunctional.

Secondly, you will never be able to develop your maximal strength or fast twitch muscle fibres to their true potential making you miss out on some tremendous strength gains that are invaluable to ability to move.

But this leads us back to the problem at the beginning. If functional training exercises work best with fast and more efficient movement, yet muscle size demands slow tempos, how can you get big using functional training?

Is it even possible?

The short answer is yes it is possible. The long answer is that in order for you to have the best of both worlds you need to combine some of the isolated and functional methods together. Knowing how to do this can be tricky and difficult to get right.

Use a Combination of All Four Training Methods

The secret is to use a combination of all these methods so you can have the best of everything. You can develop your muscle size with slow time under tension with specific exercises, but maintain your efficient movement and maximal strength by using others. Mixing up your training phases into different priorities will also do you wonders and allow you to improve many different skills and abilities.

The picture below provides you with an example of this using pushing movements to build chest, shoulder, and tricep strength.

To do this will take considerable planning but it is well worth it when you get it right. Plus your training becomes so much more challenging and enjoyable as you have so many more exercise choices and challenges to keep you motivated and inspired.

I love to constantly switch between different phases of intensity. One month I focus more on low volume workouts with a high intensity maximal strength or power focus, then the following month I switch to a high volume and low intensity hypertrophy training or strength endurance workout. Sometimes I combine a slow “body-building” slow tempo exercise with a functional and fast tempo movement within the same workout. It just depends on what the focus is at the time.

Combining the different training methods together makes every workout feel completely different and it keeps my body guessing all the time. I can feel the constant and steady improvement with every workout as my body is being forced to adapt and overcome multiple challenges.

Okay, so let’s take a look at how you can do this by starting with the feet and working our way up the body to the shoulders. Each of these videos contains approximately 10-15 exercises in order of mobility, stability, strength, and power to ensure you have all the necessary tools required to achieve your goal of building strength. Each of us is different so there is no “one size fits all” template I can provide you, only a series of ideas and then it is up to you to determine where you need to start.

Building Strong CALF Muscles

If you think calf strength is all about how many calf raises you can do, or how much weight you can pile onto the seated calf raising machine you will be in for a reality check. You must understand that these muscles are bound to what happens above and below them. Sometimes you can even over-develop your calf muscles at the expense of other muscles like the glutes and various hip musculature. It is NEVER a good idea to focus solely on one muscle in isolation and believe that strength is of most importance. Especially if you are talking about injury and rehabilitation.

When applying strength methods specifically aiming at the calf make sure you emphasize endurance. For example, with single leg calf raises I will prefer to aim for high repetitions of low loads, over high intensity loading for maximal strength gains. Many calf related injuries occur once fatigue sets in and the calf muscles are heavily reliant on endurance. With the single leg calf raise I aim for at least 30 repetitions on each leg as an indicator of great endurance. If you fail to reach 30 reps, or if there is a difference between each leg I will know that there is a weakness that will be exposed during running or sports.

In this video I show you how to assess your body for ankle mobility, foot stability, proprioception and lastly integrated function.

To see more about calf strengthening check out the two articles below

Building Strong HAMSTRING Muscles

The hamstring muscle group is quite a complex set of muscles to explain when it comes to integrated movement for they are involved in almost every leg or hip action we make. Sometimes as a prime mover, sometimes in a stabilizing role, and other times as a compensatory protective mechanism. They really are very unique in their capacity to provide or limit movement.

The hamstrings cross and act upon two joints being the hip and the knee. Semitendinosus and semimembranosus extend the hip when the trunk is fixed, they also flex the knee and medially (inwardly) rotate the lower leg when the knee is bent. The long head of the biceps femoris extends the hip, such as when you begin to walk, both short and long heads flex the knee and laterally (outwardly) rotate the lower leg when the knee is bent. The hamstrings play a crucial role in many daily activities such as walking, running, jumping, and controlling some movement in the trunk. In walking and running, they are most important as act as the brakes against the quadriceps in the deceleration of knee extension.

In this video I start with addressing mobility restrictions at the hip and knee for these areas will create compensation and inhibit the hamstrings from developing their true strength potential. Tight quadriceps in particular are a huge problem to the hamstrings and you must release stiffness here if you want to build strong hamstrings and glutes. Once the mobility is addressed you need to address any stability or movement concerns with single leg stance and bending. It is in these movements that you will build some serious muscle. Lastly you will need to improve fast moving agility movements to ensure the muscle fires fast enough in sporting movements.

For more information about hamstrings check out this article – Why hamstrings are mistakenly blamed for injury and back pain

Building Strong QUADRICEPS Muscles

There are many machines like leg extensions and leg press that can build strength into the quads, but this is often at the expense of moving well and efficiently.

In the video I show some examples of how I might gradually progress through various movements to not only improve the strength of the quads but also how well they interact with other muscle groups and joints.

The quads are one of the most commonly known areas of the body located on the front of the thigh and as their name suggests they are broken into four separate muscles.

  1. Rectus femoris occupies the middle of the thigh, covering most of the other three quadriceps muscles. This muscle crosses two joints meaning it can act as a hip flexor and also a knee extensor. This information is very important to remember when assessing hip motion later.
  2. Vastus lateralis is on the outer side of the thigh.
  3. Vastus medialis is on the inner part of the thigh and is often referred to as the VMO and is commonly linked to stability problems with the knee which we discuss shortly.
  4. Vastus intermedius lies between vastus lateralis and vastus medialis on the front of the femur (i.e. on the top or front of the thigh), but deep underneath the rectus femoris.

There are many functional movements that can build serious muscle to the quadriceps but arguably the best is the squat. From front squats to back squats, single leg squats to box jumps, the variations are endless. While the movements may differ to some degree the timing of and alignment of the hip, knee, and ankle joints is very similar.

The ankle, knee, hip, and also the spine MUST all move in harmony with each other and importantly in the correct alignment in order to handle loads, force and braking or provide propulsion and movement. If the alignment is faulty there will be an "energy leak" that will compromise the timing and strength of the movement. This leads to poor performance and eventually injury as the body attempts to adapt to the poor alignment and correct it using a "plan B" strategy, otherwise known as compensation.

This is another reason why it is important to stay clear of machine training for it will neglect this vital skill that must be constantly trained to ensure injury is prevented.

You will find a ton of additional information about the quadriceps in the articles below

Building Strong GLUTEAL Muscles

This muscle group attracts a lot of attention when it comes to strengthening as many people become aware of the fact it is a very important component of lower limb and lumbar spine health. Unfortunately, the exercise selection and training methods are often very poor and this is where a good exercise can be turned into a bad one if you do not know what you are doing. Or if you do not understand the purpose of the movement.

Overuse of exercises like the clamshell or excessive butt clenching with deadlifts and various hip extension movements can create a stack of problems for the hip so you must be careful of how to strengthen these muscles.

The Gluteus Medius is a hip extensor, abductor, and external rotator while it also stabilizes the pelvis in the frontal plane. There is three distinct heads of the gluteus medius muscle that perform a unique role as the body moves:

  1. The posterior fibres - These fibres contract at early stance phase to lock the ball into the hip socket. The posterior fibres therefore essentially perform a stabilising or compressing function for the hip joint.
  2. The middle/anterior fibres - These run in a vertical direction, help to initiate hip abduction, this is where the clam comes in which is then completed by a hip flexor muscle known as the TFL. The glutes work in tandem with TFL in stabilising the pelvis on the femur, to prevent the other side dropping down.
  3. The anterior fibres - These allow the femur to internally rotate in relation to the hip joint at mid-to-end stance phase. This is essential for pelvic rotation, so that the opposite side leg can swing forward during gait. The anterior fibres perform this role with TFL.

What this means is that to truly strengthen the glutes you will need an exercise that performs ALL of these three key functions in order to restore optimal movement and strengthen correctly. Many of the isolated exercises will not address these different roles, so while you think have gained strength the muscle is still dysfunctional.

You have to be very careful of over-training or abusing the glutes with too many exercises or clenching as this often leads to injuries like piriformis syndrome or FAI (hip impingement). The video below shows you how to approach this area effectively by ensuring you maintain good hip mobility and control of the important movements such as the Romanian deadlift and various hip hinging exercises.

Great articles to read with additional information on this muscle group are in the links below

Building Strong Abdominal Muscles

I have written so many articles about the core and the abdominal muscles that I am sick of repeating myself. When it comes to strengthening this part of the body there are so many exercises and methods used that ruin the strength of the abdominal muscles instead of improving it.

Many people train the abdominal muscles in the same way they we would use a bicep curl to make their bicep stronger. Unfortunately, the abdominal muscles and especially the stabiliser muscles do not respond to this type of training and are not programmed to function in this manner. Instead, they rely more on TIMING and SEQUENCING and are highly dependent on the MOTOR PROGRAM used by the brain for each movement we make. 

"Core control is reflex driven, not conscious driven"

Not only are people wasting their time with exercises that will do little to enhance the way their core actually functions, but they are gradually destroying joint stability and creating postural dysfunctions. It is ironic for the intention of using these exercises is to prevent these very things.

What people fail to understand is that your abs are unable to move you, other than making you wiggle or flop around like a fish out of water. You need your arms and legs to move you for your abdominal muscles are not capable of doing much. Basically the abdominal muscles have very little influence over how you move, for this is not their true purpose.

True core stability is all about being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement.

I broke this area up into two parts as they are quite different in their function and the exercises I would use to improve their strength.

  1. The Quadratus Lumborum and the obliques
  2. Rectus Abdominis

The first video is the QL and obliques.

The second video shows you how to approach the rectus abdominis or “six-pack muscles”.

Great articles to read with additional information on the core are provided in the links below.

Building A Strong LATISSIMUS DORSI

The latissimus dorsi or "Lats" as they are more commonly known is one of the most powerful muscles in your body and covers a lot of movements within the body. Common exercises used to strengthen the lats are chin-ups, lat pulldowns, and various pulling movements, however there is a lot more to this muscle than these movements.

In this video I discuss how to prevent unwanted problems with trying to strengthen this muscle as it can easily disrupt shoulder stability and thoracic mobility leading to injury and pain. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to learn these functional movement patterns is neglecting to correct areas of the body lacking mobility.

You will never be able to execute the movement effectively if you have areas of mobility restriction. This does not mean you have to be perfect with your mobility before progressing, but you do have to have some plans in place to address and correct it. You do not need to be perfect but you must make an attempt to improve what you currently have and a belief that it can be changed.

Aggressive physical training cannot change fundamental mobility and stability problems at an effective rate without also introducing a degree of compensation and as we have already discussed this is a huge problem. It is impossible to develop strength to your full potential if poor mobility of joints is present. It is also very difficult to achieve joint stability if poor mobility is present. This is why mobility restrictions are the first thing I look during an assessment with a new client and is the main focus in the initial stages of the program.

As with the other videos in this series there is a ton of exercises I have left out that could have easily been included but what I wanted to show was how you can gradually progress your training to more difficult movements and methods without causing dysfunction and pain. The main thing to get from this video is how to incorporate the various simple drills in the beginning with the more complex ones at the end.

Great articles to read with more detail on the exercises shown in the video are provided below.

Building Strong PECS and CHEST Muscles

There is no doubting these are very powerful muscles with the upper body and the engine room for many movements we make with our arms. They can also be very problematic, the Pec Minor in particular can create a multitude of problems for the shoulder so it is important to understand how to improve your strength without compromising stability of the shoulder girdle.

The first exercise that usually comes to someone’s mind when discussing chest strength is the bench press. It is such an over-rated exercise and can cause some serious trouble and is not a very good measurement of functional strength which is ironic for we have all been in that situation where someone strong walks in to a room and you hear someone say "I wonder what he can bench?" Or when discussing sport, the same question comes up, "How much can you bench?" A better question would be “I wonder how fast he can sprint up that hill or how much weight he can throw?”

The bench press exercise was never intended to be a benchmark of a person’s total body strength and fitness and it is definitely not a good way to determine how well someone moves. It is simply an exercise for making you look good in a mirror and improving the size and/or strength of the chest, anterior deltoids and triceps, nothing else. But what most people don’t realize is that this method of building muscle comes at a cost which I explain in the video below.

The fixed bar position and grip can cause a lot of trouble to the scapula and shoulder as it restricts your ability to effectively mobilize and stabilize. It also neglects the use of the core and legs which are vital for providing functional stability. I prefer to use cables and dumbbells to overcome this problem as shown in the video and use exercises that integrate the lower and upper body together which is something the bench press ignores.

The last thing to keep in mind whenever you are talking about the pecs is the role of serratus anterior. With almost every shoulder and neck injury you will find there is a significant weakness with serratus anterior. This muscle along with the lower traps are such important muscles to healthy shoulder function because they are what helps to keep the scapula attached to the thorax and in optimal alignment. The problem many people face is finding a way to strengthen the serratus anterior for it is very difficult to do. Often the dominating pecs, in particular pec minor steal the workload further exacerbating the shoulder dysfunction. The greater the imbalance becomes the worse the injury gets.

Watch the video below to see how we might approach this part of the body.

Great articles to read with additional information on this area are provided below

Building Strength to the DELTOIDS & TRAPEZIUS Muscles

This is the last video in the series of videos where we looked at a specific muscle group and applied functional training techniques and methods to increase strength. This particular video I combined the deltoids and upper traps together for most of the exercises that targets one will also target the other so it made more sense to combine them.

The trapezius is a large muscle group that extends from the back of your head and neck to your shoulder. It is composed of three parts:

  1. The upper trapezius
  2. The middle trapezius
  3. The lower trapezius

This muscle has many functions such as shrugging your shoulders, tilting, turning and extending your neck and pulling your shoulders back and down. Depending on which action you make is what determines which part of the trapezius is used more.

This muscle is primarily comprised of low threshold type 1 fibres. Meaning its role is more concerned with movements of low intensity over long period of time than producing huge force or power. An example of this would be the role it plays in maintaining the stabilisation of the scapula. This is important to understand with choices of exercise used to develop and improve its efficiency.

The deltoids on the other hand are much smaller and prone to weakness which is seen regularly with injuries to the rotator cuff. Trying to isolate these muscles too much often leads to trouble so it is wise to use more integrated and functional movements as seen in the video below.

Article to read with additional information about the trapezius and shoulder is below.

Don’t Forget Nutrition and Recovery

I would not be able to finish this article without mentioning the importance of good quality food and recovery. Training is one thing but without adequate rest or quality food you will never be able to achieve the results you are looking for.

When it comes to nutrition and recovery timing is everything!

Within 30 minutes of a workout you MUST consume some high quality protein. During exercise, especially resistance, or strength training, you cause muscle micro-trauma. Usually it’s a good thing because this micro-trauma actually stimulates muscle development, but this muscle micro-trauma impairs glucose utilization in your muscle for about 30 minutes up to an hour, and sometimes more.

The body is in a frenzy for the first 30 minutes after a workout searching for amino acids which contains the building blocks and tools to rebuild the damaged muscle tissue. Amino acids are found in high quality proteins like eggs, whey protein.

It appears as though the amino acids found in high quality whey protein activate certain cellular mechanisms (including mTORC-1), which in turn promote muscle protein synthesis, boost thyroid, and also protect against declining testosterone levels after exercise. This is where you are providing the body with the right tools at the right time to begin the process of rebuilding. If you miss this opportunity the body will search within in itself for the amino acids, and where do you think you store that? That's right within your own muscle tissue. This is like taking 2 steps forward and then taking 2 steps back!

Watch the video below for more ideas on this.

Do You Need More Help?

While I have provided you with a ton of exercise ideas it can be hard trying to put all the pieces together. The good news is I have put a lot of this together for you already and you can download some great reports that show you everything you need to know. The Little Black Book of Training secrets provides you with 101 different workouts to make sure you keep your body guessing and continually improving. The nutrition report gives you everything you need to know about nutrition so you can match your food to your training effort.

Click the image below of the report you need.

Summary

I hope this article has given you more knowledge about creating strength training programs based upon movement, instead of muscles. If you design your programs correctly you can build some serious muscle but without compromising the way you move. We must let go the thinking of the past where we needed an exercise for every muscle group and trying to slow every movement down so you can feel the burn. Spending the time to improve the efficiency and strength within these movements will allow you to improve the strength of every muscle in your body. Not only will you look good but you will feel good.

I don’t know anyone who would not want that!

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you live in Melbourne and feel you need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle