Functional Training Exercises: Gain Muscle And Explosiveness Through Highly Athletic Training

They’re big, they’re jacked, they are lean and so many guys wish they had a similar body.  When you watch a UFC or MMA fight it is hard not to admire the strength and level of fitness a lot of these guys have but the type of training is much different than what most guys do in a local gym.

Recently a reader of this blog contacted me and asked me how these guys get a physique that is not only fit from strength training but also have an incredible level of athleticism.

In order to understand how these athletes are able to stay lean without sacrificing mass we need to look at the way they train.

What Is Functional Training

Functional training originally was used in the medical field as a way to help patients who were on a path towards rehabilitation.  In order to help those who have suffered an injury or injuries that affect their every day performance a series of exercises are used in order to slowly help with recovery.  The goal is to bring an improvement in their ability to perform a task or tasks in their daily life.

Functional training in rehabilitation is different with each patient and is dependent on the type of injury that person may have had.  However, the exercises that are used are focused primarily on strengthening the muscle group which needs improvement.

In sports functional training is used by athletes of various levels, rookie, semi- professional and professional.

The purpose of functional training is to use workouts that will help with the performance of a specific sport.

Instead of focusing on one muscle group at a time as most gym goers do, the goal of functional training is to maximize explosiveness and performance by training as many muscle groups in one single movement or exercise.

The end goal of a functional exercise is to make a movement in a given sport easier and to lead to improvements in performance.

For example, a UFC fighter won’t dedicate an entire workout to working on arms by doing biceps curls and triceps extensions.  Instead, he will focus his workouts on exercises that will help him lift, hold and grapple an opponent.

An athlete like an NFL football player will focus his workouts not on the number of crunches he can do but rather on exercises that will help him on the field, with speed, agility, and with tackling other players.

Different Functional Training Exercises

Walk in to any given gym and you will find most guys going for exercises like bench presses, bicep curls, crunches, maybe some shoulder presses and lat pull downs.  These are all great exercises.  Some are excellent compound movements.  Other exercises are single joint movements and are not the best option if you want to gain muscle.

In order for an exercise to be considered functional we have to maximize its ability to work a multitude of muscle groups. A good example of this can be seen in Jason Ferruggia’s Uncaged program.

Here are some functional strength training exercises

Muscle Ups:  This is a combination of a pull up with dip all done in one motion.  It is an advanced movement and requires upper body strength.

Squats:  Any variation of a squat is a great option.  Whether you choose dumbbell squats, front squats, sumo squats, box squats, or any other variation is fine.  I am biased towards barbell squats but any variation will work according to what you feel comfortable with.

Squat Jumps:  I don’t see many guys trying them at the gym.  The few times I see anyone throwing them in their workouts I figure they have some type of sport background.  This exercise is one of my favorite finishers as it will help with keeping you lean and giving you a great workout on your legs and core.  Bonus tip: do a few sets after running some sprints for a great way to finish your cardio.

Deadlifts:  If you are serious about putting on muscle this is one the best exercises to include in your repertoire.  It may not be a favorite but it is one of the required exercises to master if you practice any sport.  There is some debate whether this is a leg exercise or back exercise but the truth is it works both muscle groups as well as your core and traps.  Once you master this exercise other activates in your daily life will become easier to do.

Lunges & Lunges with a Twist:  Lunges can be excellent functional exercises as it works the legs, buttocks and even your core.  However, if you want to maximize the work on your core simply hold some weight (medicine ball, dumbbell or kettlebell) and twist to one side as you lunge with one leg then twist to the other side as you do the next lunge.

Box Jumps:  This is a very athletic exercise and one that is used by practically any athlete in physical and explosive sports.  Choose a height that is comfortable to jump on for various repetitions.  A bench can easily substitute a box as your platform.

Tire Flips: Maybe you’ve seen guys flipping tires on YouTube or seen football players and MMA fighters use it as part of their training.  As strange as this exercise may look it is definitely a way of working on many muscle groups all the same time.  From working on your legs, buttocks, hips, arms, back and chest, it also makes for an excellent core workout.  Lifting an oversized wheel or tire is no easy task and although it may look like something fun to do, unfortunately most of us won’t find this equipment at a regular gym or in our backyard.

Power Cleans:  Olympic movements are one of the best ways to build functional strength.  Lifting a weight from the floor in a quick and explosive movement is one of the best ways to trigger fast twitch muscles.  This exercise gives you an amazing bang for your buck building athleticism, explosiveness and muscle building abilities as it works the lower body, back and arms.

Clean and Press:  The clean and press is similar as a power clean simply, finish the movement by pushing the weight over your head.  Keep the reps at no more than 5 per set and always pay attention to your form.

Push Press:  As an Olympic movement this is one of the easiest ones to practice.  Simply stand with a barbell at shoulder level and press up.  Use the strength of your legs to push the weight.  For anyone intimidated by power cleans and a clean and press you can start off with this exercise.  Shoulder presses are a good exercise but are limited to either as they work almost strictly on your shoulders and triceps.  The push press helps include the lower body muscles in a workout.

Jump Rope Training:  This is one exercise I probably wish I had tried a long time ago.  It is easy to dismiss this type of workout out of fear that you will look silly or simply because it looks too easy and lacking much of a challenge.  Don’t tell guys like Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather or any boxer that.  The jump rope is a fighter’s best friend as it helps them build stamina, athleticism, and core strength. It isn’t necessary to do fancy drills or crazy jumping with the rope, the best way to get the most out of jumping rope is by dividing your drills as intervals.  Simple 30 second intervals of skipping followed by 30 seconds of rest for a total of 10 intervals is a simple way to get a solid workout.

Farmer’s Walk:  If you’re from the city like me you probably haven’t had the chance to push a wheelbarrow but if you have seen someone carry a heavy load with one you will have noticed that it is not an easy thing to do.  If you don’t have access to a wheelbarrow just grab a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and walk with them for several yards.  This exercise may not look like it will give you functional strength but you will quickly find that it will give you strength and muscle that will help you carry heavier weight in the gym and in your daily life.  Along with building functional strength it will build muscle in your entire body, from your calves, legs, back, arms and shoulders.  Include this exercise a couple of times a week and you will develop traps like never before.

Sledge Hammer Training:  Guys that do either construction work or are lumberjacks know the benefits of using a swinging motion.  Over time your arms, shoulders, back and core develop amazing strength and muscular development.

Sled Pushes and Sled Pulls:  Sled training is a great way to get a total body workout and can take your conditioning to a new level.

Burpees:  This is definitely one of the best exercises around and the best part is you don’t need equipment.  If there is one bodyweight exercise that helps with conditioning and works your upper body and lower body it is definitely the burpees.  Throw this exercise at the end of you workouts as a finisher and you will see the results show in your body.

Mountain Climbers: This is a good choice to target your core.  It can also serve as a cardio and conditioning workout.

Kettlebell Swings:  Kettlebells are used by athletes as these can help with total body workouts.  You don’t need a heavy weight, simply swing the weight with one or two arms by using your hips to thrust the weight up.

Landmine Exercises:  A while back I talked about this specific type of exercises that can be included in your workouts.  All you need is a barbell and few plates to add weight.  Place the end of a barbell at a corner of two walls or place it in the whole of a weight plate.  You can get creative with this set up by holding the bar from the opposite end and either doing a push press with one arm, simply pushing the weight up for a shoulder workout, or doing some twisting exercises that will work on your core, legs, arms and shoulders.  Check out my article on this particular exercise here.

How to Incorporate These Exercises In Your Workouts

Many of these exercises look fun and challenging.  In order to make these exercises work to their potential it is important to know how to mix them the right way in any workout.

It may look tempting to try as many of these exercises the next time you step into a gym or maybe jump in and throw a set or two then move on to the next exercise.

The best thing to do is to choose anywhere between 2 to 4 of these exercises in one workout and work with anywhere between 3 to 5 sets.

As with any workouts you don’t want to perform these exercises on consecutive days.  I would also recommend allowing at least 24 hours rest between workouts.

Here are some examples on how you can use functional training.

Sample Workout 1

  • Power Clean (5 sets of 3-5 reps)
  • Front Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlifts (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Biceps Curls (2-3 sets of 6-8 reps)

*Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

Sample Workout 2

  • Clean & Jerk (5 sets of 5)
  • Push Press (5 sets of 5)
  • Chin Ups (5 sets of 6 to 8 reps)
  • Triceps Pull Down (2-3 sets of 6 to 8)

*Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

Sample Workout 3 (Conditioning)

  • Box Jumps
  • Burpees
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Farmers Walk

*Each set should consist of 30 seconds of activity followed by one minute rest

*Perform 3 to 4 sets

These are just some examples of functional training but you can find ways to get creative on your own.

You can follow something similar to what I have shown above on one or two days of your training and include a more traditional workout consisting of bench presses, shoulder presses, squats, etc, on another day or two of your workout schedule.

Functional Exercises as Finishers

Another approach you can take in order to make your physique more athletic is to use finishers at the end of a strength training session.

Exercises like the following make for excellent finishers:

  • Jump Rope
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Burpees
  • Sledge Hammer Workout
  • Mountain Climbers

Choose one exercise at the end of your workout and do sets of 30 seconds of activity followed by 30 seconds of rest.  Set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and do each set until time is up.

You can also check out a program like Jason Ferruggia’s “Uncaged,” which combines functional exercises with traditional exercises for maximum results.

As you can see there are many ways to make your workouts more functional.  These techniques will help you get a body that will look more athletic and will also help you perform better in your daily life, all while gaining muscle and looking your best.