Functional Aesthetics: Bodybuilding X Functional Training

By on July 22, 2021

To many people, functional training and bodybuilding are antithetical. The two lie at completely opposite ends of the “functional spectrum.”

Functional training, of course, is all about training to get better at things. That could mean getting better for your sport, or it could mean training to avoid injury and improve energy for every day tasks.

Bodybuilding, conversely, is about looking better. Big biceps therefore come at the expense of good mobility. Giant legs are more important than having enough cardio to get up the stairs.

Bodybuilding functional training

Whereas functional training tends to involve a lot of compound movements that use multiple muscle groups together; bodybuilding leans more into isolation movements that target just one muscle group to bring it to failure.

Whereas functional training often incorporates a lot of conditioning work, bodybuilding… doesn’t.

See also: What is Functional Training? Training for Athletes and For Life

And for all these reasons, many people believe they are faced with a choice: aesthetics or performance. Either look good, or move good.

This choice, however, is an illusion.

Bodybuiding: More Functional Than You Think

Firstly, bodybuilding is far more functional than many people give it credit for. The notion that bodybuilders have “fake muscle,” or anything like it, is nonsense. And mostly an excuse used by those who secretly wish they looked a little bit bigger!

Bodybuilding is far more functional than many people give it credit for.

Bodybuilders tend to use sub-maximal loads, with higher rep ranges. So, if a bodybuilder is capable of benching 150kg, they will likely use 100kg for ten reps. This is sub-optimal for strength gains, and it leads to muscle that is somewhat less “dense” and more “puffy.” Hence accusations of “fake muscle.”

Different Types of Hypertrophy

The science behind this has something to do with “myofibrillar” hypertrophy vs “sarcoplasmic” hypertrophy. This is a somewhat controversial debate, full of bro-science. But the long and short of it is that training with max weight leads to thicker muscle fibers, via an increase in sarcomeres in parallel. This is the process of breaking down muscle fiber and building it back up (reference).

Hammer Curls

Conversely, bodybuilding likely increases fluid retention in the muscle cell and increases glycogen stores. To reiterate, there is no evidence of sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy as distinct entities. It’s far more likely that both these forms of hypertrophy occur simultaneously, in all cases, alongside countless other mechanisms.

See also: What is High Intensity Functional Training?

BUT it’s also true, anecdotally, that bodybuilders have puffier muscles, lower strength, but also greater strength endurance. Chances are that bodybuilders experience more cell swelling, while power lifters lean more toward the thickening of muscle fiber.

But that strength endurance is the point I want to focus on. This is attributable to those increased glycogen stores (which draw more fluid into the muscle, coincidentally!).

There is no such thing as a non-functional adaptation.

There is no such thing as a non-functional muscle. And there is no such thing as a non-functional adaptation. Evolution doesn’t care about 18” biceps for their own sake! Having “puffy muscles,” then, must be useful.

Muscle Endurance for Bodybuilders

Essentially, this type of training improves muscle endurance, allowing you to exert strength over a long period. This makes perfect sense, as it adheres to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). Bodybuilders train with sub-maximal weights, for much higher repetitions; therefore, they are able to exert strength for longer than powerlifters who practice calling upon their strength for one huge effort.

Functional hypertrophy

As I’ve stated time and time again: strength endurance is more useful, more often, than max strength. When was the last time, outside of the gym, you had to lift something so heavy you could only manage one repetition?

When was the last time you lifted something and then didn’t also have to hold it for a duration while you moved it?

More Benefits of Pump Training

Bodybuilding-style “pump training,” therefore, builds real, usable strength. And there are countless more benefits to getting a pump, too. Because this kind of training causes blood and oxygen to pool in the muscle, it also encourages other positive changes. This is a great way to increase localized growth hormone and other metabolites. It also helps to increase vascularization: permanently increasing blood supply to boost healing and energy.

Bodybuilders still build max strength!

And don’t be mistaken: bodybuilders still build max strength, too! I often read statements like “bodybuilders have large but seemingly weak muscles.” This is a gross misrepresentation! Sure, bodybuilders aren’t as strong as powerlifters, but they’re still extremely strong! Bodybuilders still create plenty of microtears, they still increase neural drive… they’re plenty strong. Just take a look at someone like Franco Columbu who, for a long time, was considered the strongest man on the planet!

Squatting

And bodybuilders don’t only use isolation training, just FYI. Pretty much any bodybuilder worth their salt will still bench press, squat, and deadlift.

The Benefits of Isolation Training

The other criticism of bodybuilding is that it involves a lot of isolation training. That means focusing on just one muscle/muscle group. Often this is done sitting down, or with the assistance of a machine.

The result of isolation training, is that you don’t learn to move the muscle in tandem with other muscles. This not only prevents you from strengthening the stabilizers that would realistically be called into action in a real world setting, it also prevents you from learning useful movement patterns.

Consider a preacher curl: sitting down with your upper arm in a fixed position, hinging at the elbow. The bicep curl can be a useful movement – we use something similar when climbing, carrying children or shopping, getting someone in a headlock, throwing a hook, etc. But to any of these things we also need to stiffen the core and generate the power from the feet up.

how to strengthen elbows

This may sound damning, but keep in mind that isolation training isn’t a bad thing in itself. Isolation training can be a useful way to target weaker muscles, to avoid injury when training to failure, and more. This is only an issue IF isolation training is the main foundation of your training. Combine it with compound moves and it serves as accessory work.

Keep in mind that nearly every sport and nearly every form of strength training will have some glaring omissions when it comes to muscle development. Powerlifters famously don’t move much in the transverse plane. Calisthenics athletes often struggle to build their legs equally to their upper bodies. Yogis don’t practice much in the way of pulling movements.

Variety and balance is key to effective, functional training. Bodybuilding is no more guilty of this than any other modality. It is only non-functional insofar as practicing any one modality at the expense of all others is.

Bodybuilding Creates Balance

Every form of strength training will have some glaring omissions when it comes to muscle development.

And, in fact, the focus on creating a balanced and symmetrical physique in bodybuilding can be a huge asset. Bodybuilders are far more likely to spend time bringing up lagging muscle groups, fixing asymmetry in their calves, or focusing on some external rotation to develop those rear delts!

For all these reasons, bodybuilding is surprisingly functional. In fact, when you watch those strength competitions on YouTube (powerlifter vs bodybuilder, bodybuilder vs traceur), the bodybuilders almost always exceed expectations. I’ve seen massive bodybuilders land backflips on their first attempt!

The Aesthetic Qualities of Functional Training

Just as a bodybuilder is surprisingly functional, ideal functional training is surprisingly aesthetic.

Just like bodybuilders, functional athletes spend a lot of time developing strength endurance. Only they tend to do this in a more full-body manner.

Precisely because this is useful in a match/game/fight, functional coaches get their athletes to bound, sprint, climb, and battle rope.

Combine this with compound exercises that build strength and explosiveness, and you get a physique that is surprisingly shredded. Sprinting is fantastic for developing power AND a ripped aesthetic.

Running

CrossFit is its own thing, but it follows many of the principles of functional training. And surprise, surprise: those athletes have shredded physiques that would make any bodybuilder proud!

See also: Learning From Legends – Arnold Schwarzenegger

The other big advantage of functional training, is that focusses on areas that are often overlooked. Even bodybuilders, who are keen to focus on every muscle group evenly, are often guilty of ignoring the transverse plane. Or not giving enough attention to their grip.

Take your average bodybuilder then, and get them to start doing medicine ball throws and rope climbs. Not only will this form of resistance cardio be the perfect option to cut fat while building muscle, but it will also fill in all the “gaps” as it were, to develop an even more rounded physique.

Fast twitch fiber

Functional athletes have highly developed legs, shredded obliques and serratus muscles, thick, powerful forearms… Add that to a bodybuilder’s armour-like pectorals and massive arms, and you have a superhero-esque physique.

Conclusion

So no, I don’t believe that bodybuilding and functional training should be in opposition. In fact, I think they make ideal bedfellows!

And combining these types of training is surprisingly simple. Just perform more functional, compound movements at the start of your workout, transition to isolation movements for higher repetitions, and end with some conditioning such as sprinting or spinning a Bulgarian bag. A PPL split is also perfectly suited to this approach.

Meanwhile, if you only perform bodybuilding or only perform functional training, take comfort knowing you’re developing functional strength AND aesthetics, either way.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

3 Comments

  1. John says:

    Pretty good article, we really have to break the stigma that some type of training is better than the other.

  2. Carmelo says:

    The best of the best

  3. Nick Urban says:

    Love the concept. I’ve been thinking the same for a while. Ever since I read the book “The Hybrid Athlete”.

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