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Functional Strength Training Vs Bodybuilding: Is Bodybuilding The Worst Thing That Ever Happened To Strength Training?

by Tom Venuto

I’ve been involved in the strength training and bodybuilding world for over 20 years now, including 14 years in the health club and personal training businesses. This has given me a very unique perspective on a trend that’s been taking place recently that’s quite disturbing to we, the dyed-in-the-wool “old school” bodybuilders. Quite simply, we are being “attacked!” We are being accused of training “all wrong!”

Those machines we use? “Utterly worthless.” The leg press? “Non-functional.” Our strength? “Pathetic compared to our size.” Our speed? “Bwahhhh haa ha!” Our flexibility? “Like taffy at the north pole.” “Big, slow, weak, stiff, bloated, useless muscles” – that’s us – the bodybuilders. Or so says a certain group of vehement strength and athletic coaches. One well-known guru even went as far as saying, "The worst thing that ever happened to strength training was bodybuilding."

Well, after being “picked on” for a long time for being a “vain” bodybuilder only interested in how I look (not caring about my athletic abilities), I figured it was time someone finally tackled the “functional” strength training versus “cosmetic” bodybuilding issue head on. In this article, you will learn the answers to these questions: What is “functional” training?

What is “cosmetic” training? What’s the difference between the two? Should bodybuilders train like athletes? Should athletes train like bodybuilders? Will the two ever meet in the middle? How should you train if you’re just an “Average Joe” (or Jane) who wants to look good, feel good, play recreational sports and stay injury free? Do you listen to the heavily-muscled bodybuilding champ, or to the strength/athletic coach? Read on and find out.


Bodybuilding training, by definition, is “cosmetic.” In a bodybuilding competition, you are judged on the way you look, not by the way you perform. Whether you use light weights or heavy weights, slow reps or fast reps, long workouts or short workouts is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that on the day of the contest, your physique is visually the best one onstage. This means having the perfect package of low body fat, muscular size and classical symmetry.

Bodybuilding is not aimed at increasing strength, flexibility, endurance, speed or other athletic factors as ends in themselves. In bodybuilding, these performance qualities are only sought to the extent to which they help the bodybuilder look better onstage. (Or as one functional training expert sarcastically put it, “The only athletic component bodybuilders encounter is having to walk across a stage and selectively spasm muscles to their favorite tune!”)

Functional training emerged primarily from the sports conditioning and rehabilitation world. By definition, functional training refers to a well-rounded program integrating exercises which contribute to better, more efficient and safer performance of real world activities or sports movements.

For example, functional training would help the average person develop strength that carries over into daily activities such as pulling open a heavy door, hiking up a rocky trail, starting a lawnmower, carrying a child, unloading heavy packages from the trunk of a car, or reaching up and pulling down a bulky box from an overhead shelf.

If you’re an athlete, functional training will help improve your performance: You will improve your swing, throw further, run faster or increase your vertical jump. Because functional training helps link your entire body together so it performs optimally as a cohesive unit, you’ll also decrease your chances of getting injured.

The terms “core training” and “functional training” are often used interchangeably, although core training is just one modality of functional training. Core training means doing exercises that activate the “core” muscles of the torso, neck, pelvis, lower back and abdominal area.

Basically, your core is everything except your arms and legs. Core training doesn’t just work the muscles you can see – it also works the deep muscles like the quadratus lumborum and transversus abdominus which are important in strengthening and stabilizing the lower back and torso.

The most common example of a core-training apparatus is the “stability ball,” which is used for full range abdominal work, resistance training and numerous other exercises to develop balance, stability, coordination and core strength.

Why functional training caught the eye of an “old school bodybuilder”

Functional training is old news in the sports and rehabilitation world, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that it really came to my attention because I started seeing it catch on in a big way inside our health clubs. All of a sudden, the trainers had medicine balls, core balls, core boards, rubber tubing, stability balls, rollers and foam pads all over the place, whereas just five years ago, there wasn’t a ball to be found in the entire joint!

One day, as I was doing my weekly “white glove” gym inspection, I witnessed a jaw-dropping spectacle that literally stopped me dead in my tracks. I watched in astonishment as one of our trainers did full squats standing on top of a stability ball while holding a medicine ball at arms length in front of him.

I later observed him take his clients through workouts including lunging off of foam pads, jumping on and off platforms, squatting one leg at a time, “playing catch” with medicine balls, and all kinds of “weird twisting stuff” you hardly ever see bodybuilders doing.

At the time, I thought this was all very bizarre. It looked to me like they were training for Cirque Du Soleil rather than getting in shape, so initially I just ignored them and continued on with my merry old bodybuilding ways; rowing, squatting and bench pressing for multiple sets of 6-12 controlled reps.

A few things finally made me take a closer look. First, client retention for these trainers went up. It seemed that all this new variety was a great motivator for the average Joe. Second, it seemed like the personal training clients were actually HAVING FUN (which could also explain the increased retention). Third, I saw the trainer (the one who was doing the circus act on the ball), doing one arm presses with a 100 pound dumbbell on a stability ball.

Now THAT I thought was VERY interesting. I also saw him doing inclines for reps with the 120s. That may not seem like spectacular poundage for an advanced bodybuilder, but this guy wasn’t a bodybuilder. He had an athletic, but otherwise pretty average-looking build, yet he was a LOT stronger than he looked. I admit; I was intrigued.

So, being a humble guy who knows he doesn’t know it all, I started picking his brain and doing some research to learn more. I then tested out some of these techniques on myself, found the answers to all the questions that had been burning in my mind, and came to some conclusions.


To the casual observer, a bodybuilder walking shirtless down the beach represents the epitome of health, fitness and athleticism simply because he “looks” like he’s in great shape. However, a perceptive strength and conditioning coach would be likely to spot a lot of problems simply by analyzing the bodybuilder’s posture, gait and exercise performance. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and many bodybuilders have some inconspicuous, but potentially dangerous weak points. Functional training can help the bodybuilder strengthen these weak links, which left unattended, could lead to major injuries that could set them back for months.

Bodybuilders also get tend to stuck at strength plateaus quite frequently, while certain “in the know” athletes with half the muscle mass continue to get stronger and stronger – even though they might not “look” as strong as they are. Functional training can help bodybuilders make steady gains in strength and power, which, while not the primary goal of the bodybuilder, can help the bodybuilder gain mass in the long run.


Functional training can definitely help the bodybuilder become a better bodybuilder, but is the reverse also true? In some instances yes, bodybuilding training can help the athlete. For example, when an athlete needs to add 15-20 pounds of muscle, a bodybuilding style program could be incorporated into a carefully periodized schedule in order to achieve the hypertrophy desired.

However, functional training has more application to bodybuilders than bodybuilding training has to athletes. For example, most bodybuilders train with a controlled tempo and greater time under tension. Bodybuilders generally perform little or no explosive exercise, usually opting for slow reps such as a 2-3 second concentric and a 3-4 second eccentric. Time under tension is an important consideration for the bodybuilders.

If an athlete requiring explosiveness and strength used a traditional bodybuilding protocol of 6-8 reps on a slow tempo such as 4031 or 9-12 reps on a 3020 tempo, they would not be training the qualities they wanted to improve. As many strength coaches are fond of saying, “train slow, get slow.”

Athletes are not primarily interested in cosmetic improvements or pure muscle mass– they want functionality! They want strength, power, flexibility, coordination, agility, balance and endurance. They want to run faster, jump higher and hit harder.

Athletes need very high levels of neuromuscular integration and recruitment of fast twitch muscle fiber. They require activation of postural and stabilizing muscles. If the athlete focused on muscular isolation and machine work as many of the bodybuilders do, once again, they would not be training with the proper specificity.

The best thing an athlete can do to improve their sports performance is to use free weights, explosive movements and functional training modalities that are as specific to the requirements of their events as possible. Therefore, it’s only logical to conclude that athletes should NOT train like bodybuilders.


While athletes should basically “train like athletes,” bodybuilders can and should train in a more functional manner, while still keeping their unique goal of cosmetic improvement clearly in mind. There are many ways this can be done:

(1) Do more unsupported exercises, which activate stabilizers and core muscles.

Many years ago, I injured my lower back and my training was quite limited for some time. I figured that to “be safe,” I should do every exercise possible with my torso supported so there was no “strain” on my back. I chose exercises like incline dumbbell and machine curls instead of standing curls, lever rows and machine rows instead of barbell rows, Leg extensions and horizontal (supine) leg presses instead of squats, and seated dumbbell presses with back support instead of free standing presses.

While this strategy was probably wise during the acute phase of my injury, it unfortunately stuck as a habit for a long time afterwards. Little did I know, that by “babying” my back all the time, I was NOT allowing my core to get stronger.

To make your workouts more functional, get off the machines and torso-supported exercises and get onto the free weights and unsupported exercises. To progress even further, you can begin to incorporate stability ball work into your regimen.

(2) Use the Stability Ball

I admit; I was very hesitant to start using a stability ball. In fact, I did my first few stability ball workouts after the gym was closed (when no one was looking!) Bodybuilders can benefit from stability ball work by developing a stronger core. You’ll even get a nice growth spurt because these movements are quite a shock to your body when performed the first time. Any exercise that can be done lying or sitting on a bench or seat can also be done on a ball.

The first time you use a stability ball, expect it to feel quite wobbly and awkward… after all, it’s… un-stable! Start with light weights and build up gradually. The likelihood of injuring yourself in a variety of embarrassing and painful ways is quite high while doing weight training exercises in an unstable environment. Therefore, leave your ego at the door and get professional to show you how to use the ball when you’re just starting out.

(3) Perform integrated AND isolated movements for your abs including rotational movements - and avoid using ab machines exclusively.

Some of the pro-functional strength/anti-bodybuilding advocates have been known to make statements such as, “Crunches are totally worthless.” I wouldn’t go that far. Crunches are not “worthless,” they’re simply over-used. Crunches can be an excellent addition to a bodybuilder’s ab routine, but if you do nothing but floor crunches and ab machines, it’s like working out in one dimension.

You miss the benefits of full range ab work and integrated ab work. Bodybuilders could also stand to do more rotational work such as Russian twists, twisting sit-ups and the “Wood Chop.” Bodybuilders should be cautioned, however about doing heavy weighted side bends, as this tends to build the sides of the waist and can ruin the symmetry that bodybuilders require.

(4) Do more unilateral work (and more dumbbell work in general)

Virtually any dumbbell or cable exercise can be done one arm at a time or in an alternating fashion. One arm movements add functionality while still doing a great job building muscle mass. You should also do more dumbbell work in general: Strength coach Charles Poliquin says, “Dumbbell work is the foundation of strength.” This is true not just because dumbbells often allow a greater range of motion, but also because dumbbell work is functional – it requires more stabilization.

(5) Emphasize free weights over machines

Many bodybuilders rely too much on machines. Machines have a definite place in a bodybuilder’s routine, but machines should not come first in the hierarchy of importance. Machines will help hit the muscles from a wide variety of angles – which bodybuilders need – but they they lock you into a fixed path and are generally not functional.

(6) Use more compound, large muscle mass, multi-joint exercises and fewer isolation movements

Isolation movements often provide the finishing touch that give bodybuilders the “polished” look that many strength athletes lack. As such, bodybuilders should certainly use isolation movements such as machine flyes, leg extensions and lateral raises to round out their routines.

However, doing primarily isolation movements is a mistake. Compound, multi joint exercises like squats, presses and rows are unsurpassed for strength, muscle mass, power and functionality and should remain in a bodybuilder’s program year round – even before competitions.


Here is the ultimate answer to all your training questions: CLARITY OF PURPOSE! Any confusion you have about the multitude of training methods being promoted today will evaporate when you get clear about what you want. Why are you in the gym? What, specifically, are your goals?

Many coaches and athletes in strength, speed or power sports let their emotions and personal preferences color their judgement and they wrongly accuse bodybuilders of faulty training… when in fact, the bodybuilders are simply doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing: Training to look good. Bodybuilders are not weight lifters, they are “physique artists.” On the other hand, many bodybuilders are closed minded to trying methods from the sports world (such as functional training), even though they would clearly benefit from it.

Truth is, bodybuilding is NOT “the worst thing that ever happened to strength training.” Neither bodybuilders nor strength athletes have a training methodology superior to the other. Each is simply training to achieve the specific goals and requirements of their respective sports. Success in either endeavor all boils down to knowing what you want (clarity), then choosing the appropriate tools to help you get there the fastest.

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