Integrated, or functional strength, is a time-efficient training program that focuses on developing usable strength in sequential muscle patterns moving over a stable or strong core.
So what does functional mean?
Functional, usable strength is that which you can support with your own body. Traditional isolated strength training generally uses external support while increasing specific muscle strength.
An example of this would be a bench press. The target muscle isolation would be the pecs, even though other muscles are involved such as the front deltoids and other secondary muscles of the arms which move the weight. But support for the body or “core” is provided by the weight bench – it is “external” support.
With external support, one can gradually increase the amount of weight that they are able to “bench press” to impressive numbers over time. But being able to actually use that strength requires the ability to provide support “internally”.
A good example to consider would be moving a large object such as a heavy tall chest of drawers. Even with strong chest muscles, pushing such a heavy object would require you to contract the core muscles to support your torso as you push.
Functional training is based on the concept that you are only truly as strong as your body or “core” can support.
What does Integrated Mean?
Our bodies are meant to work multiple muscles at the same time in order to perform everyday tasks or recreational activities. Training muscles as they were meant to perform helps to develop relative strength and sequential muscle firing – or signaling muscles to work in a specific order.
The example of functional strength above would require you to engage or “fire” the muscles in a sequence:
1. Leaning in toward the object with bent arms to prepare for the push. Legs would most likely be in a semi-lunge position or a split stance with one foot forward and the other leg extended behind.
2. Stabilizing the core with a “co-contraction” of the front and back of the torso to protect the spine.
3. And finally pushing with your chest, arms and your lower body muscles as you maintain the co-contraction for torso stability.
Training upper and lower body muscles simultaneously is not only functional but it can also be a great time saver.
Consider squats and lunges. These exercises are great for developing functional lower body strength. Many muscle groups work to execute these movements. If you are training for increased muscle strength and power, most likely you will be adding significant external resistance in the form of a heavily loaded weight bar or dumbbells.
But for many who do not want to progressively increase load for muscle mass, these exercises are generally performed for muscle endurance after adapting to your own body weight.
Adding upper body movements with light or moderate weights can then provide a new training stimulus. Movements such as overhead presses, lateral raises or bicep curls can be performed at the same time as you squat or lunge (see exercises for recommendations and precautions) and reduce your overall training time.
As you perform these integrated movements, your core muscles will need to contract to stabilize against the movement.
And as you progressively challenge yourself with these new movements, other secondary muscle groups will fire to maintain stability and balance as you move.
Quality over Quantity
The emphasis in integrated or functional strength is on the quality of the movement rather than how many you can do or at what level. It is important to monitor how you feel and work with control.
When working with free weights, resist gravity rather than allowing gravity to assist with the movement. As you lower a weight, make sure that your muscles are resisting the pull of gravity rather than letting gravity pull the weight down.
Holds are also an important aspect of these movements and functional training. You can increase the quality of movement and reduce momentum by adding brief pauses or holds as you work.
Be aware of your “weak links” and potential compensations when progressing to integration. If you are new to core stability training, you may find that your low back will fatigue before you actually reach fatigue in your stronger muscle groups.
Performing higher reps – even with lighter weights – may produce fatigue in other muscles. For example, you may find intially that integrating upper body movements with squats and lunges will produce fatigue in the trapezius or neck muscles.
Pay close attention to your form and rest your “weak links” as needed. Overtime they will strengthen.
(The photos and exercises previously associated with this article have been removed.)