Physique Versus Function – A False Dichotomy

Bodybuilding and training for performance need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, a training program and diet geared towards performance – specifically building as much strength as possible throughout the entire body while maintaining a low body fat percentage – will result in a physique that is both highly capable and impressive.

A major reason for belief in the physique versus function dichotomy is probably the greater use of isolation exercises in bodybuilding, which are often erroneously considered “non-functional” by many in the functional training crowd. They believe that an exercise must be performed in a manner that mimics how the body moves during activities of daily living, work, or sport for the strength or other aspects of fitness gained in that movement to effectively transfer to those activities. However, it is not necessary to work the muscles involved in a particular movement using a similar movement for the strength gained to transfer. Regardless of how a muscle becomes stronger, the greater strength can be applied to any movement involving those muscles, and any program that effectively addresses all of the major muscle groups will improve function, even if it includes isolation exercises.

While it is my opinion that the basis for any strength training program should be heavy, multi-joint movements – my own routines are built around squats, deadlifts, presses, chin-ups, dips and rows – isolation movements have their place. Single joint exercises are often the best way to address areas that are disproportionately weak to correct imbalances. While some trainers claim these imbalances will correct themselves over time if the muscles are worked during multi-joint movements, what often happens is the trainee will alter the way they perform those movements to compensate for the weaker muscle groups, possibly increasing the imbalance and the risk of injury. Also, research conducted by Nautilus at West Point showed the muscles of the neck – of extreme importance to athletes in contact sports – respond much better to direct, isolated exercise than through indirect involvement in other movements.

On the other hand, many bodybuilders fail to appreciate the degree of muscular size that can be developed with nothing but basic, multi-joint exercises. If you increase your strength to the point you can perform weighted chin-ups and dips in strict form with fifty percent or more of your body weight, you can increase the size of your biceps and triceps significantly without having done any curling or isolated triceps work. If you also work up to a bodyweight overhead press you can dramatically improve shoulder development without doing a single lateral raise, front raise, or any other isolated shoulder work. There is also no doubt that regular, heavy squatting will develop well muscled thighs (I’m talking about real squats though, not the lazy half squats that are all too common).

Strength is general – regardless of how strength is developed, whether with multiple or single-joint exercises, whether with free weights, body weight or machines, that strength can be applied in any movement the muscles are involved in.

Skill, on the other hand, is specific – to improve the ability to apply that strength efficiently in the performance of some movement requires specific, deliberate practice. While strength training movements that mimic other activities of daily living or vocational or athletic skills may provide some base skills that can be built on to develop the specific skills, there is no direct, positive transfer of skill from a movement that is performed under load to another, superficially similar movement.

Many aspects of functional ability, balance, agility (the ability to quickly change position or direction while maintaining balance), coordination (the ability to accurately perform movements involving different parts of the body), and speed (which increases with greater efficiency of movement) depend on both muscular strength and skill. The general quality of strength with transfer equally to improvements in any of these, regardless of how that strength is improved. A bodybuilding program that builds strength throughout the whole body (as a proper bodybuilding program should) will contribute to improvements in all of the above. Improvements in the specific skills involved in these would require practice of the movements in which they would most commonly be applied, either as part of regular performance (as in the various movements of daily living or work) or through drills (as in training for various sports or more physically challenging vocations or hobbies).

For example, I study a variety of martial arts (primarily Wing Chun, Muay Thai, Kali, Arnis and Silat) and have regularly trained and practiced with different people and groups over the years. Most of my own strength training since the 1990’s has been bodybuilding oriented. I have never performed a strength training exercise in a manner intended to mimic a movement from any of these martial arts. It would be an inefficient way to improve the strength of the muscles involved, and would not improve my skill in the movement. In fact, it would result in negative transfer of skill – instead of improving my ability to perform the movement. A bodybuilding oriented program, in combination with deliberate, specific practice, improved my ability to perform the movements of these arts at high speed in a balanced, agile, coordinated manner – moreso than some of my classmates and training partners who followed the current “functional training” philosophy.

Another reason for belief in the physique versus function dichotomy is the idea that there is a difference between training for size and training for strength. There is not. If you want to develop larger muscles, you must train to become stronger. Some of the confusion over this may be due to the fact that the ratio between muscular strength and size gains varies between individuals, and that there are numerous other factors affecting strength, neurological efficiency and musculoskeletal leverages just to name a few. As a result, some people may appear to gain a significant amount of strength with little muscular size gains, while others may gain a larger amount of muscle than might be expected relative to their increases in strength. This is not because ones training specifically favors strength or size, although they may sincerely believe this and it may appear that way, it is simply the way their body responds to strength training.

Some researchers have speculated based on the difference in muscular size gains relative to strength increases that the reason some people have a greater hypertrophic response is because they get less of a strength increase per increase in cross-sectional area. You might gain more or less muscle than someone else for an equivalent gain in strength, but the principle is the same for everyone. If a person wishes to become a muscular as their genetics will allow, they must train to become as strong as possible throughout their entire body. As mentioned above, regardless of how that strength is obtained, it will contribute to improved functional ability.

I should mention that while people who gain a larger amount of muscle mass relative to strength may end up with a lower strength to size ratio than someone who gains less muscle mass relative to strength increases, in most cases this additional muscular weight will not reduce functional ability. Assuming proportional development, even those with an extreme hypertrophic response will never gain an amount of muscle mass that will even begin to approach, much less exceed the improvement in their ability to efficiently carry it. Also, a drug-free bodybuilder will never develop such a large amount of muscle mass that it significantly reduces their flexibility, and in fact their flexibility will improve if they perform their exercises over a full range of motion.

Truly functional training (not the balance ball circus acts some so-called “experts” recommend) emphasizes muscular strength. Of all aspects of fitness it is the most important. Cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning are important, but they support muscular work – without strength they aren’t worth much. Flexibility is important, but it just permits muscular work to occur through some range of motion – flexibility is meaningless without strength, and an injury waiting to happen. The various skill related aspects like balance, agility and coordination, involve application of strength. They enable strength to be applied in the most efficient manner to accomplish some task, but are meaningless without strength.

Interestingly, Mark Rippetoe had the following to say about strength in the CrossFit Journal, a publication primarily geared towards functional training,

“…people who come to CrossFit from a strength-training background tend to perform better in the key aspects of the program.”

I believe the same would hold true for almost any sport or physically demanding vocation. All else being equal, the stronger person will perform better. A proper bodybuilding program, one that develops strength throughout the entire body, along with regular workouts emphasizing metabolic conditioning, can improve both physique and function.

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