How to Do Functional Strength Training for the Upper Extremities

Pullups recruit many upper-body muscles and train your arms functionally.

Pullups recruit many upper-body muscles and train your arms functionally.

Functional training generally refers to how applicable a certain exercise or movement is for the goal for which you're training, says strength coach and owner of Performance University, Nick Tumminello. A functional exercise places a high demand on your central nervous system and requires balance, coordination and muscular control to perform. Your upper body extremities are your arm muscles -- namely your biceps and triceps. Training them for functional strength requires a little more planning than simply going to the gym and performing random exercises.

Base your training around free-weights rather than machines. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois says that free-weight training is more functional and has increased carryover to training for sports and everyday activity. Machines, however, force your muscles to move in a fixed plane of motion, meaning that you don't recruit any stabilizing muscles and they place a lower strain on your central nervous system.

Perform chinups, pullups and barbell or dumbbell rows to work your biceps and dips, pushups, bench presses and overhead presses for your triceps, writes trainer Cassandra Forsythe in "The New Rules of Lifting for Women." While most people train their upper body extremities with curls and pushdowns, these aren't functional, she says. Your biceps are designed to work in sync with your back muscles and your triceps with your chest and shoulders so the most functional exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups together. Don't waste your time on isolation exercises unless you're putting the effort in on the big movement, adds Nia Shanks, trainer and co-founder of Girls Gone Strong Training.

Keep your sets and repetitions low to moderate and the weight as heavy as you can manage while maintaining perfect technique. The idea that light weights performed for high repetitions burns more fat is a myth. To train for functional strength requires challenging weights to stress your central nervous system and place extra strain on your muscles and joints. Perform all your exercises for three sets of six to 10 reps to begin with and aim to add a little extra weight or increase the reps each session.

Items you will need

  • Pullup bar
  • Dumbbells
  • Barbells


  • Ask one of the gym trainers to help with any exercise techniques you're unsure of.


  • Check with your health care provider before starting a training plan.

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About the Author

Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.

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