FUNCTIONAL BODYBUILDING: What is it really?
If you’ve spent a long time chipping away at your training goals but now you’ve got your eye on making some specific body composition changes, then some additional/ hybrid bodybuilding work could be exactly what you’re looking for.
Andrew Tracey is here to talk ‘functional bodybuilding’.
‘Functional bodybuilding’ is a huge buzz term at the moment as coaches scramble to deliver the latest and greatest programme to help you hit your performance goals whilst also dabbling with some physique orientated training; but when we break the term down what do we actually get?
The word ‘functional’, much like ‘fitness’, more or less describes ‘the ability to perform a task’- so if your goal is to add an inch to your biceps (which is a goal as noble as any as far as I’m concerned), then surely traditional bodybuilding training is as functional as it comes?
This can get a bit murky when we consider what the term has grown to become, or how it’s commonly used; ‘functional’ as it’s applied to training, tends to now dictate how well someone can perform tasks across the board- from strength, to power, to endurance.
So how then do we incorporate movements and formats that on the surface seem to be ‘all show, no go’?
That’s the question functional bodybuilding seeks to answer.
A hybridisation of strength and athletic cross training with more traditional bodybuilding modalities, to help you reach your body composition goals in tandem with maintaining (or even improving) your performance in other arenas.
Each coach has their unique own take on it- from those who incorporate the odd pump inducing finisher to those who do the opposite and hit more traditional iron slinging work followed by a metabolic blast to cap of the session and improve your GPP.
I want to explore three of my favourite concepts and techniques, hopefully shedding some light on how (and when) to use your traditional functional kit to hit your physique goals, whilst also keeping the engine revving, with a healthy dose of complimentary workouts for you to experiment with yourself.
Whatever your personal view on ‘functionality’ is, the most important piece of kit for the majority of Crossfitters is the barbell. It may not provide the most ‘real world’ carryover, but for hypertrophy (muscle gain) it’s one of the best all round tools in your arsenal. So why hasn’t all of your strength and conditioning training under the bar elicited the body composition goals you’re after?
Put simply the mechanisms that produce bigger muscles, aren’t always the same as the ones that produce *stronger* muscles. There’s definitely crossover and it’s inarguable that a lot of growth can be wrangled out of good old fashioned heavy lifting! But if you want to focus some of your attention solely on getting swole then we need to look at not just lifting big old weights but creating mechanical tension and metabolic fatigue and really making the muscle work, set after set.
The first thing we can look at is maintaining time under tension aka controlled, high quality reps- a massive push press chipper may be absolutely exhausting, but how much of that tension is concentrated solely on your shoulders if you’re using a huge leg drive and dropping the bar from the top after every rep?
A decent volume of high quality, good tempo reps, focussing on maintaining tension throughout the set is the easiest way to start without changing ANYTHING else in your programme whatsoever.
Picking one or two barbell exercises in each session to focus on quality reps will go a LONG way in tickling out some gains.
Now we’ve looked at slowing things down and paying attention to our tempo, tension and sloooowing things down on the eccentrics of our movements, we can look at how best to arrange those movements.
Let’s talk volume.
Increasing volume is one of the first avenues most people explore when looking to add a bit of timber to their frame, and for good reason, it may not be the only way to elicit growth- but it’s certainly one of the best.
By increasing volume (ie. the amount of sets or total reps you perform in a given workout), especially good quality volume, you’re exposing the muscles worked to a greater deal of stress and therefore more reason to adapt. When the weight employed, rep schemes and tension are reflective of this goal then the adaptation we can be expecting to see is hypertrophy aka gains.
While there are no golden rules and all individuals will respond differently, a pretty battle tested rep/set scheme for hypertrophy is to aim for around 100 total reps of a movement, with a weight you could probably lift for 15-20 reps total, then breaking that down across a workout, with one or two other movements, avoiding failure in your initial sets.
Once you’ve got this protocol locked in, you can work in the right exercises that will move the needle towards your goals, and structure them in such a way that you’re avoiding fatigue for as long as possible, getting in that high quality, controlled, muscle building volume, with whatever ‘functional’ athletic twist you want to throw in.
We’ve slowed things down to get the most muscle-building, bang for our buck, then ramped up our volume for maximum growth.
Now, I want to talk about something considered sacrilege in some areas of the functional community- bicep curls.
Not just bicep curls- ‘accessory’ and isolation movements in general.
Whilst big, compound movements will always be your bread and butter for strength, size and conditioning (pretty much anything, actually), no two bodies are built the same, and for some a little bit of accessorising may be necessary for maximum growth.
This doesn’t mean you need to go full bro; start wearing stringer vests and adopt a ‘body part split’, just that the clever inclusion of movements that may be deemed less ‘functional’ may actually be the most functional thing you can do if you’re looking to fill out those sleeves.
Movements such as curls, tricep extensions, Arnold presses, lateral raises, leg extensions and hamstring curls all have their place in a functional programme and can even be plugged into metcon’s and circuits with great effect, all without diminishing the desired effect of the session.
In fact, training your bigger lifts in a pre-exhausted state, could be just what you need to burst through strength plateaus.