Our bodies are an amazing assembly of levers and fulcrums that enable us to move. There’s always an exterior platform our arms and legs are pushing against.

In the pool it’s the water. On the bike and run it’s the ground.  But there’s also a complex interaction of our levers called arms and legs that also use the stability of other parts of our body to generate their force. The strength of those internal platforms is what has given birth to the concept of having functional strength.

Think of it this way. If you do a traditional squat a lot of the stability for the lift is created by both legs being on the ground at the same time. Of course you can lift tremendous amounts of weight this way. But in the real world, the realm that functional strength helps improve your performance in, there is never a time where both legs are pushing from the ground at the same time when you are running. It’s one foot, then the other. And each time you push off you will be most efficient if nothing wobbles. That means no knee wobble with the push off. It means no hip sway that dampens the force trying to be generated on the toe off.

A one legged step up onto a step or bench engages the big muscles of the glutes but also requires stability to be developed as well as core.

So a functional strength move works the same muscles as a traditional lift but then requires some additional elements to mimic the real world better. For a squat this can be done simply. Just step up onto a bench or box one leg at a time, then the other leg.

This is a real world functional strength move. It requires using more muscles to stop any sway or instability. It helps develop the functional strength to put 100% of your force into the toe off. A squat done this way works the glutes but also forces you to develop balance. It requires you to align the lifting force with the body above and engages the front and back of the core.

In general, functional strength work is taking true strength moves then figuring out how to engage more muscles and associated platforms that they push against.

Here’s another example. If you do a traditional bench press it’s easy to have your entire core fairly relaxed. If you do a pushup with straight legs it’s impossible to do anything other than bring a tight core into it.

The permutations are endless and could be an entire course. So to bring it down to the basics, when doing strength work ask yourself with each lift if there is a way to add in an element of balance? Is there a way of doing the move in a way that engages more of your body that just the main muscle group you are targeting? Can the lift be modified to come closer to how you would use those muscles in the real world?

Functional strength work is critical for being able to maintain good form in a race when you start to fatigue. It is critical to being able to move efficiently at any point in your training and racing.

It also helps develop the body awareness needed to engage the full potential of your body’s movement. You feel where the levers are trying to push or pull against in your own body. And once you have that, you will start to gain a flow. The way you move will be efficient, fast and sustainable!

Let me remind you of the three keys to early season training that I’ve talked about so far. They are Fitness, Form and now Functional Strength. In the last of this 4-Part Series I’ll talk about Flexibility. Now in the early season is THE best time of the year to work on it!

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About the author Mark Allen More information on the author

I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.

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