Different Destinations, Different Journeys
Get Functional, Get Structural, Get Started!
by Christian Thibaudeau
Functional Vs. Structural
Different destinations require different journeys. While that may seem obvious, several individuals involved in the strength training field dont seem to understand this physiological fact. These people will prescribe the same cookie-cutter program to all types of clients: bodybuilders, powerlifters, football players, martial artists and you name it! While its true that all forms of strength training will carry over to improved performance to some extent, its also true that if you really want to excel at something you must train specifically for that something!
Basically, a strength training program will have two types of effects: functional and structural. Functional gains refer to improvements in physical qualities which can be transferred to sport actions. In other words, the body will work more efficiently. Functional gains are mostly due to improved neural factors and can thus happen without a change in muscle mass.
Structural gains refer to improvements in the quantity (hypertrophy) or quality (adaptive reconstruction) on the musculoskeletal structures. Increases in muscle size and strengthening of tendon structure would be examples of structural improvements.
While structural and functional gains are independent (meaning that it's possible to improve one without any change in the other), it's very rare that any given training method will only give you one or the other. Generally, both will occur to some extent, the ratio between both being highly variable depending on the type of training.
Let's take a closer look at each goal.
Functional gains, in a way, means that you improve by making better use of what you already have. Improved intramuscular or intermuscular coordination are two of the most important reasons for that increase in function.
Intramuscular coordination refers to the capacity of the nervous system to optimally recruit the motor units within a muscle while performing a motor task. Intermuscular coordination refers to the capacity of the nervous system to use optimal timing between the muscle groups involved in an action.
We could also mention that some of the functional gains seen with strength training are due to a lowered innervation/activation threshold of the motor units. This means that each of the muscle fibers in a muscle will require a lower neural drive to be activated. This is obviously very important for every athlete, especially strength and power athletes.
Here are the training parameters which will maximize functional adaptation:
Frequency of Training (per muscle group):
Intensity of Training:
Type of Contractions:
Type of Exercises:
Number of Exercises:
Type of Training Split:
Rest Periods Between Sets:
Functional training is a specialized form of motor learning. The key concept in motor learning is that frequency of practice is the most important determinant of success, not repetitions. It's better to do a low number of reps very frequently than to do a low number of reps infrequently.
For example, most elite Olympic lifters will perform between 5 and 20 total reps per exercise during a workout. During the competitive period, when they want to maximize performance, they'll perform only 5 to 10 total work reps on the competition lifts and maybe 10 to 15 total reps in the assistance exercises. However, they'll do this six times per week, sometimes more! This is motor learning at its best, folks!
Functional training requires not doing a lot of reps at any given time. The reps must be of high quality (quality in strength training equals high force production and proper technique) and you must repeat the process several times per week. That being said, frequency and volume must be planned logically. If you perform 25 total reps of an exercise at each session (5 x 5 for example) you can't repeat this workout six times during the week. Three times will be optimal.
On the other hand, if you perform only five total reps per exercise at each session (1 x 3, 1 x 1 or 1 x 5, or 5 x 1), it's possible to repeat the same exercise four to six times per week (but do vary the intensity from one session to the next). Ideally, the weekly number of reps should vary between 30 and 75. The higher the intensity is, the lower the number of total reps per week.
For example, if your average weekly intensity is 85-89%, you can perform 60 to 75 total reps per week. If it's 90-94% you can perform 45 to 60 total reps per week, and if your weekly intensity is 95-100%, you can perform 30 to 45 total reps per week.
Motor learning requires high quality movements. In strength training, quality refers to the amount of tension (and thus force) produced by the muscle. Force being equal to mass times acceleration, you can have a high quality contraction either by lifting a very heavy load (85-100%), lifting a moderate load at a relatively fast speed, or lifting a light load at a great speed.
Depending on the physical quality you want to improve, one of these three methods will be best suited to you:
While tempo training does have its place in structural training (as we'll see later on) it really shouldn't be the focal point of functional training.
Complex motor tasks require a more important nervous system implication. With functional training we want to improve the capacity of the nervous system to solve motor tasks, so we need to use strength training exercises that are complex. Multi-joint exercises are the only way to go. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, snatches and chins are all prime choices. Isolation drills should be thrown out if you're strictly interested in functional gains.
Some stability or Swiss ball lovers will argue that unstable exercises are good for functional improvements because of the high level of complexity of these exercises. Its true that they're complex from a motor standpoint, however, since the potential of these exercises for strength, strength-speed and speed-strength improvement is very low (at best) I really don't consider them to be functional training in its truest sense.
If you're training only for functional gains, only two splits are possible: whole-body training or an upper body/lower body split. This is because each muscle must receive some stimulus two to six times per week for best results. Two sessions per muscle group is the bare minimum for functional gains, three to four being best in most cases. As a result, it's impossible to train using a body part split, unless you have room to train eight to ten times per week!
Ideally, youll want to limit each training session to two to four exercises. If you use a whole-body split (which I recommend for purely functional gains) only three exercises can be used quite successfully. In that case youll want to include one upper body push exercise, one upper body pull exercise, and one lower body exercise. You can even reduce the exercise number by using whole-body exercises such as the Olympic lifts. For example:
If you choose to use an upper/lower body split, I recommend using either two main workouts with four exercises each or six main workouts with two exercises each. Because of motor learning, the second option is best, however, it isn't practical for everybody. Here's an example of each situation:
4 Workouts Per Week
I personally like to use short rest intervals with many of my athletes, especially with athletes needing to produce a lot of force and power in a fatigued state (e.g. football and hockey players). However, if all we're interested in are the pure strength qualities (limit strength, strength-speed and speed-strength), relatively long rest intervals should be used. The objective is to allow full recovery of both the muscles and nervous system before attempting the next set. Were generally talking about three to five minutes.
What we want with functional training is neural adaptations. This is especially important for athletes who need to gain strength and power without increasing their bodyweight (weight class athletes, sprinters, etc.) Such a program will increase muscle mass, but not to monstrous levels. Its biggest aesthetic impact will be on the visual quality of the muscle tissues: functional training increases myogenic tone, making your muscles look harder even at rest.
Structural gains are often associated with an increase in muscle mass. While it is indeed one of the structures affected, we mustn't forget the tendons and even bone structure. Structural gains refers to a strengthening of the musculoskeletal structures (muscle, tendon, bone) in your body. The obvious outside modification accompanying structural gains is an increase in muscle size (hypertrophy), which is why it's the preferred training method for those seeking bigger muscles.
Structural training will also lead to an improvement in performance, especially in the weight room because the capacity of a muscle to produce force is related to its cross-sectional area (its size). However, big muscles aren't always efficient. Imagine that your muscle is a factory and your strength/power is your production. A bigger factory (bigger muscle) should be able to produce more than a smaller factory. But if there are more hard working employees in the smaller factory, the situation might be reversed!
The bottom line is that structural training may lead to strength improvement through an increase in cross-sectional area, but that improvement will be far from optimal because you dont improve neural factors as much as with functional training.
Structural training has other benefits to the athlete like tendon strengthening. High volume training can stimulate an increase in tendon strength, which may reduce the risk of injury. However, excessive muscle hypertrophy may also lead to reduced athletic performance through capillary compression due to the excessive muscle tissue size, significantly reducing oxygen transport to the muscles. This is called irrational hypertrophy and it can have a detrimental effect on athletes participating in sports requiring either a constant oxygen supply (soccer, basketball, or running) or a very intense oxygen supply (football and hockey).
Structural training still has its place in a training program, especially for young athletes lacking in muscle mass, bodybuilders, and in the early preparation period of athletes.
The following gives the training parameters which will maximize structural adaptation:
Frequency of Training (per muscle group):
1-2 times per week
Intensity of Training:
Type of Contractions:
Type of Exercises:
Number of Exercises:
Type of Training Split:
Rest Periods Between Sets:
Since motor learning isn't important in the case of structural training (or at least it's not a primary goal), training doesnt have to be as frequent. As a result, each session should have a greater training volume to stimulate maximum protein accretion following training.
A high volume of training will yield an important muscle protein degradation and muscle glycogen expenditure, both of which will stimulate the body to increase the size of the muscle. The greater the protein degradation during training (without overtraining) the greater the following protein synthesis/accretion will be during the recovery period (provided proper nutrition).
However, it takes a relatively long period of time for a muscle to recover from a high volume session, around 72 to 96 hours. Thats why performing more than two sessions per week for each muscle might be too much. So you can either perform one workout per muscle group with a very high volume of work, or two weekly sessions with a lowered volume.
Because a high volume is required to stimulate maximum structural gains, the relative intensity can't be as high. Loads of 60-85% should be used, so the number of reps per set will vary from 5 to 12. The number of reps you choose to perform will depend on your training experience and objective.
As a rule of the thumb, advanced lifters will get more hypertrophy gains from sets of 5-7 reps, intermediate lifters from sets of 8-10 reps, and beginners from sets of 10-12 reps. Generally speaking, the lower the reps, the more the structural improvements will be accompanied by strength and power gains. However, beginners will gain strength just as well from higher reps as from lower reps.
When trying to stimulate structural adaptations the tempo, variability becomes more important. You'll want to increase the length of each rep (and thus of each set) to augment the amount of degraded proteins. This is done by increasing the duration of the eccentric (yielding) portion of the movement, by adding an isometric pause in the middle of the movement, or both. The concentric (overcoming) portion is kept rapid to maximize muscle tension.
While compound, multi-joint exercises should still comprise the majority of your training volume, for maximum structural gains some isolation exercises become necessary. This is especially true when it comes to developing smaller body parts to their maximum potential.
Dont overdo it though! Year after year I see people getting too cute with their training program, trying to target every single muscle in their bodies through isolation. (I once knew a guy who used an exercise to isolate his pyriformis muscle for crying out loud!)
Certainly use compound exercises for the big muscle structures (pectorals, upper and lower back, deltoids, hip extensors/knee flexors, high flexors/knee extensors) and add some isolation exercises for smaller body parts such as biceps, triceps and calves.
Because of the lower training frequency per muscle group, it's possible to use a wide variety of training splits to great effect. Here are the best ones in no particular order:
Upper/Lower Body Split (2 workouts per muscle group)
Body Parts Split
My personal favorites are the push/pull/lower body and push/quads/pull/hips splits.
In any case, we'll want to use two to four exercises per muscle group. If you train three muscles per session youd better use two exercises per muscle (three will also be okay). If you train two muscles per session you can use three exercises per muscle, and if you train only one muscle per session you can go to four exercises for that muscle.
When training for hypertrophy we'll want to use short rest intervals to increase training density. A high density of training leads to more muscle fatigue which forces the nervous system to recruit more motor units at each set. This is the opposite of what we want when training for functional gains. With functional gains we only want to stimulate the more effective motor units, but with structural training we want to fully fatigue as many motor units as possible to gain as much muscle mass as possible.
One to two minutes rest is what I recommend. Going as low as 30 to 45 seconds is acceptable if you can maintain a decent level of effort.
With structural training our objective is to increase the actual size of the muscle and to strengthen the tendons. A high volume of work is required to do so optimally. The eccentric (negative) portion of the exercise must be emphasized and the rest intervals should be kept short.
Understand that even if functional and structural training seems to be in direct opposition to one another, each of them will bring you both functional and structural gains. This means that even if you train strictly for function, you'll get some structural improvements and vice versa. However, when trying to maximize one type of gain, the other type will obviously occur at a slower rate.
Some people now use a hybrid approach to stimulate both types of gains. This can be effective for the average trainee but not so much for elite athletes. (The phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" comes to mind.) Here are some ways of "hybriding" functional and structural training:
1. Performing functional main workouts with the addition of a few assistance exercises targeting hypertrophy at the end of every session. This is the technique I use the most with my athletes: after each session I give them 15 to 20 minutes of "beach time" in which they can train whatever muscle they want. This approach is simple and doesnt diminish the gains you'll get out of your functional training. Athletes must be careful not to overdo it, of course.
2. Using one functional and one structural workout per week can also work. For example:
This type of hybrid can be very effective in promoting gains, and one added benefit is that the structural workout (if done at a relatively low intensity and high volume) can actually increase the recovery between two functional workouts. The downside is that motor learning won't be optimized because you cant train each structure more than twice per week. Its still a very good alternative.
3. Using high intensity methods (heavy weights, moderate weight/fast, and light weights/explosive) at a high volume of work is another way to seek the best of both worlds. This is done by performing a very high number of sets of few reps (e.g. 10 x 3, 12 x 2 etc.) per exercise. One must carefully monitor any signs of CNS overtraining as this can happen with this form of training. This method is effective when used for a training cycle of four to six weeks by relatively advanced lifters.
4. Alternating a functional and a structural week can also be effective. This is very simple: one week is functional training, the next is structural training. The focus of training is always changing so motivation is kept high. It might also be a good way to avoid overtraining: one week overloads the nervous system while giving the muscular system a break, and the second week overloads the muscles while giving the CNS a break. This can be very effective foundational training for intermediate lifters.
If you understand the principles presented above you'll be able to stimulate strength, power, and muscle gains to an extent that you once believed impossible. Furthermore, youll be sure to get what you expect out of your training because you'll know what a certain type of exercise program will give you as far as results are concerned.
Just remember, different destinations call for different journeys. Choose your path and hit the road!
Christian Thibaudeau is a strength and conditioning coach who works with a wide range of elite athletes. He has successfully trained athletes requiring a wide array of physical qualities ranging from strength and power (football players, Olympic lifters, strongmen competitors) and important energetic capacities (hockey players) to proprioception and stabilization/balance (figure skaters ). He's also a competitive Olympic weightlifter and a football coach. Christian is completing his M.Sc. degree in exercise science and has been a research assistant in that field for the past two years. His book, The Black Book of Training Secrets, is available here.
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