“Functional” is a word that has gotten thrown around the fitness world a lot recently. It used to describe types of movement but now we have functional jump ropes, functional water bottles and functional air to breathe. It’s kind of like how a few years ago when everything that didn’t have gluten in it was suddenly labeled as “gluten free” — even if it never had gluten in it to begin with. Now there’s functional bodybuilding. Even though the name may have been chosen to cash in on the functional craze, the theory and application is anything but a gimmick.
But before we go any further, credit where credit’s due. Marcus Filly and his coach Mike Lee are two of the biggest proponents of functional bodybuilding. They are the forces behind what is growing into a movement all on its own within CrossFit®. (Note: A great resource, especially if you’re more of a visual learner, is Marcus Filly’s Instagram page: @marcusfilly.)
Functional bodybuilding isn’t some revolutionary idea that’s intent on turning the fitness world on its head. To me, it’s just a necessary realignment within functional fitness. Imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. On one end lies functional fitness and at the other end traditional bodybuilding — functional bodybuilding lies in the dead center.
Why Functional Bodybuilding is Important
If I’m being honest, the greatest attribute of functional bodybuilding resides in its ability to correct imbalances in the body. CrossFit® is universally known as being constantly varied but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall victim to biasing certain movement patterns. For example, CrossFit® does a majority of its pushing and pulling in the vertical plain rather than the horizontal. Also, most of the movements are compound bilateral movements. Because of this, deficiencies in certain areas may arise.
Functional bodybuilding helps correct structural imbalances through unilateral movements. Weaknesses, imbalances, poor movement patterns, lack of mobility and muscle compensation all become exposed rather quickly when doing single arm or single leg type movements. It not only helps identify these problems but also corrects most of them. Creating a balanced and structurally strong body creates a greater foundation to add more complex movements, to your programming.
Say what you will about the meathead in the spaghetti strap muscle tee but the fact of the matter is if he knows what he’s doing, he probably knows a thing or two about getting strong. So it goes without saying, the most obvious benefit to functional bodybuilding is its ability to build strength.
Functional bodybuilding hinges on some atypical movements that may be great for building overall strength but are rarely seen in a CrossFit® metcon. Movements like the Z-press or dumbbell bench may be missing in action at the CrossFit® Games but shouldn’t be missing in your programming. Doing tempo work and isolating individual muscles will not only make you stronger but will have a great carryover effect to traditional CrossFit® movements. Again, building a stronger foundation and creating muscular and body awareness will create a bigger platform to build your pyramid atop of.
Recharge Your Batteries
Now it’s time to get slightly personal and speak from experience. In my personal training, the greatest benefit of functional bodybuilding is that it allows me to take a step back. Being competitive all year only to further ratchet that up to another level during the Open left me feeling pretty burnt out and demotivated to do anything even remotely intense after the Open. Subscribing to the functional bodybuilding philosophy for a couple of months after the Open allowed me to take a step back to recharge my batteries. It was the smartest decision I could’ve made.
It not only allowed me the opportunity to correct some imbalances and finally fix some of those season-long nagging injuries but it also gave me time to let my motivation and love for CrossFit® to return. To have fun training again.
As the sport grows, and the expectations and pressure mount, especially for those who choose to compete, the need for an “off season” is becoming more and more apparent. Functional bodybuilding, I believe, should and will fill that gap.
Functional bodybuilding isn’t meant to replace CrossFit® in totality. It’s meant to fill in the gaps and supplement any potential deficiencies. People often fall into the trap of thinking the only way to succeed in CrossFit® is to relentlessly beat yourself into the ground day after day. Yes, that’s one way to get better, if you don’t get injured or burn out first. This article is meant to tell you there is another way; it just takes a bit of a leap of faith. But if you’re willing to take that chance, dial it back and apply some of the principles found in this article, you may just come out stronger on the other side.