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Traditional Versus Functional Strength Training: A Deep Dive

by Jennifer Sweenie
Last Updated: August 17, 2022

If you use an Apple Watch to track your workouts, you’ve probably noticed the option to choose between a traditional versus functional strength training session. Or maybe you’ve heard these terms at the gym or in conversation with a personal trainer or a friend? The truth is, strength training is more than a buzz word; it’s hugely important for each and everyone of us. But what is strength training? And what is the difference between traditional versus functional strength training?

While both methods of strength training do exactly as their namesakes imply—train you to build strength, there are some key differences between the two. Read on to find out which type of strength training, traditional or functional, is the best choice for you. 

Which is better for you - traditional versus functional strength training?
Which is better for you – traditional or functional strength training?

What Is Traditional Strength Training?

Traditional strength training exercises are the movements that come to mind when you typically think of weight training. Also referred to as resistance training, traditional strength training usually works one muscle group at a time, and their main focus is to build strength and bulk up muscle mass. Think making your way around the weight machines or hand weights at the gym while knocking out reps on each one, usually to muscle exhaustion—possibly alternating “leg day” and “arm day”, etc.

Here’s 10 popular traditional strength training movements:

  1. Arm curls
  2. Leg presses
  3. Triceps dips
  4. Bench press
  5. Dumbbell row
  6. Lat pull down
  7. Hip thrusts
  8. Hamstring curl
  9. Inverted rows
  10. Shoulder press

Pros of Traditional Strength Training

There’s a mountain of scientific evidence to prove that traditional strength training is good for you. Here’s our top 3 pros for you to consider:

  1. Build strength in specific, targeted muscle groups
  2. Build more muscle tone/hypertrophy
  3. Easy to measure and track results

Cons of Traditional Strength Training

As fantastic as traditional strength training is at boosting a variety of health benefits, there are some major downsides to this form of training. Here’s 7 cons for you to consider:

  1. Incorrect form and technique can lead to injury
  2. Propensity to go too heavy without proper guidance from a professional may lead to injury
  3. Soreness from muscle stress
  4. You need weights and equipment
  5. Lack of flexibility training
  6. Lack of aerobic training
  7. Repetitive, may lead to boredom

What Is Functional Strength Training?

Functional strength training helps with—you guessed it—how you function. Functional strength training is about synchronized, repetitive, dynamic movements. It focuses on training your body as a whole to improve your agility and ability to perform routine activities in your daily living—from carrying groceries to climbing stairs, to lifting your suitcase into the overhead compartment on an airplane.

It’s also commonly used by athletes to improve their performance in professional sports. Functional movements are about training your muscles to work together for your day-to-day compound movements. Think of the wide variety of exercises that comprise a HIIT class (high intensity interval training) and how many muscles are involved in each.

Here’s 14 popular functional strength training movements:

  1. Squats
  2. Planks
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Push-ups
  5. Burpees
  6. Lunges
  7. Kettlebell swings
  8. Deadlifts
  9. Climbing man
  10. Bridge
  11. Medicine ball throw
  12. Glute activation with resistance bands
  13. Balance and stability exercises
  14. TRX rows

Pros of Functional Strength Training

There’s a growing body of evidence that highlights the benefits of functional strength training. Here are our top 8 pros for you to consider:

  1. Improve performance with everyday tasks
  2. Improve balance and stability
  3. Improve mobility
  4. Builds endurance
  5. Improve aerobic capacity
  6. Improve coordination
  7. Less time to get more work done
  8. Little to no equipment necessary

Cons of Functional Strength Training

When deciding whether functional strength training is a good fit for you, it’s important to consider these 3 cons:

  1. Dynamic movements performed with incorrect technique may lead to injury
  2. Training is contraindicated during pregnancy and breastfeeding
  3. Precaution necessary for those with any cardiovascular or musculoskeletal disorders or diseases

8 Pros Shared by Traditional and Functional Strength Training

No matter the format you choose, strength training will bring on amazing health benefits. Here are our top 8 pros shared by both traditional and functional strength training:

1. Builds muscle and strength

Both forms of strength training will stimulate muscle repair, muscle growth and promote strength gains.

2. Increased resting metabolic rate

A study conducted in 2019 concluded that resistance training increases your resting metabolic rate. Or in other words, resistance training promotes more calories to be burnt while at rest.

3. Increased bone density

A 2014 study found maximal strength training may be a simple strategy to optimize bone mass early in life and avoid osteoporosis later on.

4. Improves mood

Resistance training has a positive affect on mental health, according to a 2017 study, by improving symptoms of anxiety.

5. Improves brain function

Resistance exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive performance in a 2019 meta-analysis.

6. Improves physical mobility

A 2009 systemic review found resistance strength training improved physical function in older adults by improving strength and performance in simple and complex activities.

7. Aids in blood sugar regulation

A study from 1985 demonstrated increased insulin sensitivity in muscle, due to the activation of glucose transportation during muscle contraction.

8. Burns fat

A study conducted in 2019 found that having more than two resistance training sessions per week improved the body composition and lipid profile in study participants.

Traditional Versus Functional Strength Training Simplified

Traditional strength training involves applying resistance to a single muscle group. Whilst functional strength training makes use of compound movements (involving two or more muscle groups). This is the main difference between these two fitness styles.

The compound movements observed in functional strength training often mimic movements that you would make in everyday life. For example, a deadlift resembles the movement you would make when picking a heavy object off the ground.

Certified Personal Trainer Gwyn Koening, explains the difference with a common example, “The quad extension machine at the gym does an awesome job of isolating the quads and working them in a way to stimulate muscle growth. However, it really doesn’t have much of a purpose for athletic performance, as the movement doesn’t transfer.”

Koenig continues, “Most of my functional strength training clients are moms who are carrying their children around, so we focus on appropriate movements and exercises that help for activities like that.”

Traditional Versus Functional Strength Training Comparison 

In the table below, you’ll find all the facts you need to know about traditional versus functional strength training.

Traditional Strength Training Functional Strength Training
Focus Isolates and builds strength in one muscle group at a time, typically to exhaustion. Incorporates compound movements that include two or more muscle groups.
Unique Benefits Builds muscle, builds strength, improves hypertrophy and muscle tone, easy to measure and track results. Aids with balance and stability, more muscles worked in less time, improves mobility, builds endurance, improves coordination. Can be used to improve day-to-day functions or athletic performance.
Cons Incorrect form and lack of professional guidance may lead to injury, possible muscle stress. Lower growth in muscle mass, possible injury due to dynamic movements performed incorrectly, training contraindications
Equipment  Dumbbells, barbells, weight machines. Bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, kettlebells, stability balls, weighted balls.
Popular Exercises Bicep curls, tricep dips, hamstring curls, leg press, knee extensions. Squats, deadlifts, olympic weightlifting, barbell, burpees, kettlebell swings, lunges, pushups, box jumps.


Bicep curl or body weight push-up? Which strength training format is the best choice for you? It comes down to your goals.

Functional strength training is best if your focus is to:

  1. Improve athletic performance
  2. Avoid and prevent injury,
  3. Navigate your day-to-day life with more physical strength and agility

Traditional strength training is best if your focus is to:

  1. Isolate and build up specific muscle groups through hypertrophy training
  2. Improve muscle tone and aesthetics for body building
  3. Rehab a specific muscle group after injury or surgery

That being said, instead of taking a traditional versus functional strength training viewpoint, a combination of these two schools of training provide a comprehensive approach to meeting all of your fitness goals.

Primal living is all about the ultimate holistic, functional approach to overall health—from nutrition to fitness to lifestyle—get started with a myPrimalCoach today to learn more.

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