Functional Strength Training For Everyday Mid-Lifers – Like Me!

With the endless, often confusing and overwhelming  information on the internet about weight lifting, strength training, functional fitness, power versus strength, etc., how do we know what’s what? Most importantly, what is best for me? You may ask yourself, as many of my clients and students do, what is the best way for me to strength train? How do I build strength, achieve functional fitness (do I even know what “functional fitness” really means ) and maintain my strength and agility as I age; so I will feel and look my best?

You may think that a few sets of traditional seated bicep curls, tricep kick backs and machine chest presses, along with a squat or lunge set here and there is the answer to your fundamental base strength needs. Not anymore!  Regularly performing machine-based and bench-assisted exercises (seated or laying down isolated dumbbell exercises) may not be the best mode of transportation for successfully navigating life’s daily activities, surprises and challenges. Especially when strength and mobility is the goal; and it should be!

I encourage and support my clients to move beyond where they believe they can go physically; not only do they make significant physical strength gains, they also feel more self-confident and empowered to perform certain tasks that may have not trusted themselves to do before. For example, stepping up onto a stool to change a light bulb in the laundry room or bending down to pick up a 10-20 pound box of books; schlepping them to the car and ultimately placing them into a nearby book drop. Preparing for a dinner party can be a marathon workout for many; demanding total body strength, flexibility, and endurance. A weekend of travel; dragging and lifting suitcases, laptops, briefcases and handbags, squatting over filthy public toilets (yuck) can be exhausting, at times harmful. Oh yes, let’s not forget about our ability to recover from these activities without feeling a need to be hospitalized for a week.

My intention was to write a detailed, info-packed article about proper functional fitness training for mid-lifers and beyond, but after checking out a few of my “go to” web resources, I came across this super intelligently written article on the subject. So why bother; this is as good as it gets folks! The following article will benefit anyone, any age, desiring to improve base strength. For me, this is the “right path.”  Perhaps, the yoga of functional fitness!

Always love,


Read on…

Eight strategies by America’s top innovative trainer educators that will power up your knowledge and super charge your training tool bag. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE between strength and power?

Strength is the ability to exert a great deal of force into an object without regard to speed. Ironically, a great example of this is what we see in power lifting (bench press, deadlift, squat). Generally these lifts are very heavy but also very slow. This slow speed means that in spite of its name, the sport is not “powerful” at all.

If we compare these exercises to Olympic lifting (clean and jerk, snatch), we see a very different quality. Olympic lifts are among the most powerful movements in sport. The defining characteristic of power is time … or lack of it. The great forces that are exerted over a very short period of time in Olympic lifting produce extremely high values of power. This is why these lifts are used as training for almost all power based sports. Understanding this concept of speed leads to some simple rules about developing power vs. strength. To develop strength we need to use heavy loads and slow motor speeds. If we want to target power, the speed of movement must be much faster. In order to accomplish this, the load must be reduced. In the general progression of things we need to first build strength before proceeding to movements and motor speeds that emphasize power.

Having more base strength will influence how much power we can produce. The slower movement speeds associated with strength exercises help us identify weaknesses, tightness and imbalance that could otherwise be hidden by momentum present in a more power based action. Keeping the speed slow at first is especially important with new exercises. Moving slowly through a big, integrated action teaches us to stabilize joints and neutralize forces that are experienced during the exercise at slow speed.

This creates the motor learning base necessary to progressively do the same action at faster and more challenging speeds that begin to represent the actual speed of the movement being trained for. As movement speed increases in training, it’s important to make sure that compensations that were corrected earlier do not reappear.

This can happen as a result of increased complexity and external forces associated with moving faster. Ensuring a high quality of movement at every stage of the exercise will produce great performance results in activity at the other end. The next component: “function.” “Function” has been a major buzzword in the last few years. What function is for an average person is very different from what it is for a Cirque du Soleil (famed acrobatic circus) performer. We need to understand exactly what it is we are training for.

What does the action look and smell like? If the exercises we select look and smell the same way, we will be training “functionally,” and these movements will carry over into performance very easily. So what are the basic guidelines?

Ninety-nine percent of all activity happens from a standing position. Our training needs to mirror that if we want it to translate to performance. Considering that the vast majority of strength training equipment comes equipped with a nice padded seat, training from a standing position will be a shift for many. It’s safe to say that unless you’re training someone restricted to a wheelchair, an exercise with a seat is not functional. The equipment seat eliminates opportunities for other muscles to aid in an exercise.

Life and sport occur in an unsupported, unrestricted and in many cases unstable environment; whereas traditional, machine-based and bench-assisted exercise occurs in a supported and restricted environment. How then will traditional training transfer over into life and sport when the environments for both are so different? Quite simply, it won’t; or at least, its effect will not be maximized.

Consider the following example

A middle-aged woman wants increased upper body strength. The trainer runs her through a number of isolated upper body movements and sends her on her way. Later that week she returns home from a trip to the grocery store. Her arms hang at her sides because each hand clutches heavy grocery bags. She approaches her kitchen counter (above her hands’ level) and … well, what does she do? If she follows what her trainer has prepared her for, she might lie down and press her bags to the counter … not high enough. Maybe she’ll bend over and row them up there … still not high enough. How about with soft knees and arms straight, she will be able to deltoid-raise them to the counter … hmm, bad leverage.

Nothing the trainer showed her actually is helping here. She pre-loads her body by bending her knees, flexing and rotating her trunk slightly, and with a straight arm … abducts her scapula. Now that the entire body is coiled, she uses a single-arm power clean movement (extends through her hips, while extending and rotating the trunk, adducting the scapula and flexes her shoulder) to heave each handful of bags up on the countertop.

For fit people, you’re probably having trouble visualizing this trainee’s hapless maneuver. That’s because the fit, strong person would simply face the counter head-on, curl both arms, and maybe add a little shoulder flexion, and easily get the bags onto the countertop. But imagine that the bags are way too heavy for you to biceps-curl to counter height. The lady’s single-arm power clean is like a single arm upright row, except with a pre-loading knee bend with a little bit of rotation.

Imagine taking a dumbbell (that’s too heavy to easily lift) with one hand, and putting it onto a rack that is close to sternum high. The body screams out to integrate action as the nervous system works to coordinate movement in order to make it as efficient as possible. While isolative training is great for aesthetics, it is not coordinative and provides limited neuromuscular training that translates into real movement. Isolative movement breaks the kinetic chain.

So what is the kinetic link principle?

1: The human body is a series of interrelated links or sequentially activated body segments.

2: Movement at one segment affects adjacent segments. 3: While each segment can be considered independent anatomically and biomechanically, in reference to human function they must be considered as a unit.

4: Proximal to distal sequencing: Motion should be initiated with more proximal segments (at or near the point of attachment of a limb to the body, such as shoulder joint versus the wrist or elbow joint), with distal segment (at or near the end of a limb’s attachment, such as wrist or elbow, versus shoulder) initiating its motion when proximal segment reaches its max speed.

Understanding this principle goes a long way in understanding functional movement. Consider the form that has been preached for years in a barbell biceps curl: Keep back straight, knees soft, elbows fixed; curl the bar up, isolating the biceps. While this is a great movement to develop the biceps in isolation, it goes against almost everything the body wants to do in function, which is to bend the knees, flex the trunk and round the shoulders to pre-load the body.

Drive up through the hips, extend the trunk and shrug the shoulders sequentially (proximal to distal sequencing), to create movement in the bar that is followed by biceps activation to the top of the curl movement. While in many settings this action would be deemed cheating, it is exactly what the body commands in function.

The exercises being used to train a client in function need to use the same motor sequencing and integrated action that trainees will experience when attempting the movement in life and competition.

How are the muscles actually functioning in the movement? What is the primary function of the rectus abdominis and the erector spinae? The rectus abdominis flexes the trunk, while the erector spinae extends the trunk.

Now stand up and put one hand on your abdominals.

Now bend over as though you were going to pick something off the ground without thinking about anything other than the task of picking up the imaginary object. Did you feel anything? Now from that same standing position with your hand still on the abdominals, bend backward. Did you feel anything now? Now place your palm on your lower back and repeat the actions.

If you didn’t consciously create a contraction (which is essentially cheating the test), what you would have just felt is that the rectus abdominis did not fire as you bent forward (flexed the trunk), but did fire as you extended it.

Conversely, the erector spinae did not fire when you extended the trunk, but did fire when you flexed it.  But isn’t this exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to do? Yes. In function everything changes. In fact, based on the little test you just did, we could say that in function, the rectus abdominis actually extends the trunk, while the erector spinae flexes it.

You’re now thinking, they were working eccentrically (negative contraction) – and of course you’re absolutely right. But don’t we traditionally train these body parts concentrically into flexion and extension, respectively, and through ranges that are not representative of where they are active in a standing position?  The same can be said for many other key structures in the body that function in a way that is much different than the traditional methods used to train them. Knowing the body at this level is a challenging thing to do, and a true student of it will find that the more we learn about it, the more humbled by the body we become. 

Courtesy of

Be Sociable, Share!

Related posts:

Love this post? Buy us a coffee to celebrate!


  1. Dear Allison, this is very interesting.

Speak Your Mind