Archive for Functional Workouts

Is Lack of Grip Strength Lowering Your Functional Strength?

If you’ve never worked out your forearms until they’ve ached and felt like over-inflated footballs, you may not be as functionally strong as you think. A weak grip puts you at a disadvantage during lifts such as deadlifts and pull ups and many sporting activities, particularly grappling arts (wrestling, judo, catch, bjj, etc.) It can also negatively impact your performance in everyday activities like yard work, etc.

If you have a weak grip, luckily you can fix it! Below is a list of a few grip focused exercises that will dramatically improve your grip strength.

1. Towel Hangs – easy enough to set up, but very difficult to preform (in a good way). Drape two towels over a pull up bar and gather together in bundles shoulder width apart. Grab one towel in each hand and lift your legs off the ground. Hang until your grip fails. Perform three sets to failure. For added difficulty work on your abs simultaneously by performing leg raises

2. Farmer Carries – grab two weights about the same weight as you would for shrugs. Grip the weights as tightly as you can with the weights hanging at your side and walk around in a circle until you can’t hold on any longer. Do 3-5 reps to failure.

3. Plate Clasps – similar to farmers carries, but no walking. Grab two Olympic plates and let hang at sides by holding onto the plate ridges with your fingertips. Pretend like you’re holding onto the plates like you’re a rock climber. 3-5 reps failure

4. Behind the back forearms – hold a straight bar behind your back with your palms facing behind you (both thumbs will be facing each other). Allow the bar to roll out of your palm grip and along your fingers until you are gripping the bar with your last knuckle grip. Roll the bar back up into your palms with your fingers, then once fully into the palms contract your grip fully, pulling your wrists up as close to ninety degrees as possible (or as far as comfort allows). That is one rep. Repeat this motion 20-25 reps for three sets. Then massage out your inevitably aching forearms.

5. Seated inverted forearms – this is the reverse motion as the behind the back forearm, but you far less weight and it’s in front of your body. Pick a weight that’s at LEAST half of what you preform on the behind the back forearms movement. Grab your barbell and sit on a flat bench. With the bar in your hands, palms facing down, rest your forearms on your knees while raising your calves by making a tip toe motion. The weight in this position will be hanging draped 6-8 inches away from your shins. While gripping onto your bar, roll the bar back to you until the backs of your palms are facing you (almost like revving a motorcycle). Then in a controlled motion return the weight to the hanging position. This is one rep. Do 20-25 reps for three sets.

I don’t recommend, nor do I think you could meaningfully perform all of these lifts on the same day. Work these slowly into your workout scheme and watch your grip strength improve dramatically.

Types of Deadlifts

The deadlift is a tremendous source of functional strength with its compound movement and translation to real world functionality. Performing deadlifts safely and with heavy weights will help you increase both strength and balance. All of this is fairly common sensical, but did you know there are a large number of deadlift variations:

1. Traditional/Conventional – probably the version you’re thinking of when you think of deadlifts, hence the name. Feet shoulder width apart, hands grasped palms facing you (regular) or one palm facing towards you and one away (s-grip). Ass and hips sunk to roughly knee level and the bar just inches from your shins. Rocking slightly back onto your heels to drive directly upward to full extension with shoulders set back.

2. Sumo – same deadlift motion except with your feet set roughly 2x shoulder width, feet pointed out at 45 degrees or so. Drop hips down to just above knee level, rock back onto heels and explode upward to full extension and shoulders set back.

3. Stiff legged/Bulgarian – knees bent slightly and hips set back, you reach down to the bar by bending at your waist (as opposed to dropping your level with your knees.) Your feet should be just outside of shoulder width. With back straight and head up, the bar is lift off the ground with the strength of your hamstrings, glutes, and more of your back than any of the other deadlift types. Be extremely careful with this and all deadlift types as your putting your body under tremendous load/stress. Do less weight with Bulgarian, as your back is activated more, and at a compromised position. Also prepare for your hamstrings to be extremely sore the day after your do Bulgarians.

Before doing any of these lifts ensure you’ve been trained effectively by a trained fitness professional. Also ensure that your body is warm and stretched. A deadlift is going to affect your whole body if done right. Therefore your whole body will need to be prepared for the lift. Go extremely light until you get your form perfect. No sense in rushing this — the deadlift is so effective, once you get it right, your body will respond with strength gains when it’s ready to handle it.

Already an experienced dead lifter? Want to know your one rep max estimate without undergoing the injury risk that comes along with maxing? Check out our deadlift max calculator on the site.

Or if you have an android device, check out our one rep max app (it works for all of the big three: squat, deadlift, and bench)

Full Body Jiu Jitsu Strength Building

1.) Deadlift – you may hate this one, but the deadlift is one of the best full body exercises out there. The compound movement and the ability to perform a lot of weight in this lift enable you to build a tremendous amount of functional strength. In addition to the strength gains, you’ll also be taking on a lift that’s equally as technical as many subs/moves in jiu jitsu. Doing a correct deadlift is equally as technical and nuanced as setting up the perfect armbar. As such, make sure you do plenty of research or hire a trainer before you start racking up big weights.

2.) Razors – if you haven’t heard of this workout, think of it as a two legged hamstring curl with a Swiss fitness ball. While laying on your back have the swiss ball positioned below your upper heel/lower ankle and calves. Press down with your heels into the ball and thrust your hips to an upward facing plank position. This motion should be aided by strongly flexing your glutes. While still applying pressure downward with your heels, curl the Swiss ball with heels into your butt. Return to the starting position by performing the same motion in reverse.

3.) Kettlebell swings – While appearing simple at first glance, there are many nuances to this lift. Again, research this movement fully and/or hire a trainer before performing heavy weights. The general concept of this lift however, is to allow a kettlebell to swing between your legs and slightly behind the hamstrings as you make a hybrid seated/squatting motion. Next, and in one fluid motion, you athletically thrust your hips forward to return the kettlebell to roughly bellybutton height (with your arms maintaining full extension). Sounds fairly simple, but I see a lot of people performing this lift with extremely dangerous form. Definitely do your research before you start swinging around weights.

4.) Bent Over Rows – This workout is performed with a straight bar, and will help with maintaining a strong side-control. Use a bar with no weight to start to ensure good form before you go big on this lift — if you go heavy at all. You are essentially bending over during this lift which puts a lot of stress on the back, so I like to do high reps at low weight instead of going heavy. For this lift, you bend at the waist and drive your hips back over your heels (with slightly bent knees). With the straight bar hanging directly below your pec line, draw the weight up (with over or under hand grip) to your bellybutton or slightly above — whichever is more natural for your body type.

5.) Four Way Neck or Manual neck – If your gym has a four-way neck machine, then they’re one of the few…but it will make your life much easier — just remember to drape a towel over the machine. Something about putting your face/head in/on a machine where others have done the same doesn’t seem that sanitary to me. To do the manual version of this lift, however, simply generate the same resistance as the machine with your own hand. For example, to do the “lift” to the left, put your right ears towards your right shoulder. Reach over to the far side of your head with your right hand and pull lightly towards your right. While maintaining steady pressure with your hand, press your head towards the left until it returns just past center. Repeat for 10-15 reps in all directions.

These are five simple lifts that will certainly help your jiu jitsu game — generating functional strength from head to foot. Give them a chance by themselves, or try incorporating them into a pre-existing workout!

Yoga and Functional Strength

Functional Strength from Yoga

Yoga for Functional Strength Gains

I have been interested in taking yoga classes for a long time, but with monthly gym membership fees and jiu jitsu team dues, it was very difficult for me to justify taking on another membership fee. I anticipated it helping my flexibility, an incredibly valuable for grappling (jiu jitsu), and it was an area of my game where I was very weak. My flexibility was “average” at best, and I rarely had the discipline to stretch as much as I should.

Luckily, my current gym offers free yoga classes — so I started taking a class once a week. I thought the major advantage of yoga was going to be my increased flexibility, but in fact my flexibility did not increase as dramatically as I thought it would — instead I found value in other aspects.

1.) Increased strength in compromising positions – this was by far the greatest benefit for my Jiu Jitsu game. The challenge yoga imposes on the muscles in twisting positions are completely unfamiliar in most traditional (linear) workouts. This type of muscle development is incredible for passes and exploding into side mount escapes. These are the two direct application improvements I’ve found from practicing yoga. Additionally, I’m more confident in sit outs and going for fireman-style takedowns.

2.) Balance – this is very similar to the first point, but the effects were so noticeable that I feel I need to call this out again (and in a slightly different way.) Balancing your body in odd positions in yoga is very similar to the positions people put you in during sweeps (especially when you are passing standing up.) My yoga practice allows me to prolong my ability to balance throughout a longer portion of the sweep. This buys me more time to recover my base, or even just frustrate my opponent until the give up on that particular sweep.

3.) Mental and breath control – this was a huge surprise to me. The first few times I went to yoga I was amazed at how restricted my breathing was. I am in good cardio shape, but I think the stresses of work had subconsciously kept me from taking full, relaxed breaths at rest. This carried over to Jiu Jitsu I’m sure, especially when fighting off chokes or when enduring heavy side controls. Yoga’s focus on breath control has helped increase my lung capacity as well as improved my discipline of breath. This is particularly critical during choke defenses and bottom side control. You’d be surprised how many people give up on chokes (that would probably end up fully sinking in) if you can manage the calmest rhythmic breathing possible during the beginning phases of the choke. This breath control and mental discipline has helped me immensely when in shitty positions.

If you’re even remotely interested in yoga — do it! I can tell you from experience that it’s definitely worth the time. Just remember to go in with an open mind — because the benefits you uncover may be in different areas than you originally think. But the benefits will be there nonetheless!

Strength Training After ACL Surgery

Knee Stability

ACL Workout

I am speaking strictly out of personal experience here, and you should most definitely take the advice of your doctor and/or physical therapist over this post…but I am writing what has helped me the most in my “post ACL reconstruction” workouts.

A brief history, I’ve had three knee surgeries for three issues: a left ACL tear, a left bucket-handle meniscus tear, and a right ACL tear. Both ACL reconstructions were done with my own hamstring tendons from the same side leg.

All three surgeries went well, but over the years I can tell (and was later proven through a MRI) that the reconstructed ligament from my earliest surgery had stretched. Because of this I take extra care to understand my workouts and determine which ones work the best at maintain and increasing my stability. The exercises that I find work the best for me and my knees are:

  1. Two-armed kettlebell swings
  2. Lunges (light weight, high reps)
  3. Single legged body squats on BOSU ball
  4. Hamstring curls
  5. Razors – kneeling with a partner holding your ankles down as you slowly lower your chest to the ground…i.e., using your hamstrings to slow the motion.
  6. Hamstring curls – laying on your back and resting Swiss ball under your heels, push your pelvis into the air, and roll the Swiss ball into your glutes.
  7. Front squats (light weight, high reps)
  8. Inner/Outer Thigh
  9. Side leg raises
  10. Abs – with a focus on planks

(I completely avoid leg extensions at all costs. I wouldn’t even recommend leg extensions to those without knee problems. The sheer tension on your knee throughout this workout puts tremendous stress on vulnerable tendons.)

By completing this list of exercises on my standard leg day, not only do I get a phenomenal workout, but I also have dramatically increased my knee stability. This has been absolutely crucial as I love remaining athletically active, particularly in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Functional Strength Exercises

Battle Ropes

Battle Ropes Provide a Great Functional Strength Workout

Common and Effective Functional Strength Exercises

This list should have been written a long time ago, but better late than never…Here is a list of exceptional functional strength exercises:

  1. Pull Ups: The standard pull up is an exceptional functional strength workout. Pull ups can be modified to focus on various muscle groups — the back, the biceps, or the forearms. Many body weight exercises make for great functional workouts as you’ll see throughout the list.
  2. Push Ups: Like the pull up, this old-fashioned body weight exercise is great for building strength in multiple muscle groups (ex: chest, tris, back, abdominals)
  3. Burpees: This multi-faceted movement is incredibly impactful and doesn’t take a lot of space (could be why they are so popular in prisons). Another benefit of this whole body workout is the fact that it doubles as a great cardio workout.
  4. Anything Kettlebell: almost all kettlebell movements are complex and engaging. The two handed swing is probably the simplest most complete workout. The Turkish Get Up is another great workout, but is far more difficult to learn to do properly. Check out YouTube clips from certified kettlebell instructors for a cheap, and effective way to stay safe. Want a rough estimate of what weight you should be using, check out our kettlebell weight calculator.
  5. Squat: Simple exercise, but extremely effective. As with all of these lifts, ensure that you use excellent form and appropriate weights to avoid injuries. Many squat workout routines revolve around your one rep max, but performing maxes can be dangerous. Use our squat max calculator to avoid injury, while still getting a great estimate for your squat max. Remember that there are many forms of squats…and…front squats often more closely mimic realistic strength movements.
  6. Deadlift: Another simple, but extremely effective workout. Good form and proper weights are critical for maintaining safety in all lifts, but this one particularly. Make sure you have a certified lifting coach to help you learn the nuances of this lift. Like the squat, many deadlift routines are based on your one rep max, which is a dangerous metric to gather. Use Functional Strength Lab’s One Rep Deadlift Max calculator to estimate your one rep max.
  7. Battle Ropes: Battle Ropes have grown in popularity after their use by MMA many fighters prepping for their bouts. Battle ropes engage the core, the arms, and the legs all while providing a great cardio workout. The undulating resistance mimics many functional movements.
  8. Club Bells: Club bells are ancient workout equipment, but they have also grown in popularity based on their functional strength range of motion. All signs point to Asia as the birthplace of club bells, but regardless of where they originate from, they provide excellent functional movement resistance. It also provides a great cardio workout.
  9. Jump Rope: A lot of people don’t equate jumping rope with strength, but jumping rope is tremendous for developing strength in the shoulders and the calves. To top it all off, it is developing this strength all while improving balance and eye hand coordination.
  10. Lunges: Another simple body weight exercise with the option to add weights. There are TONS of variations of lunges, and they can be made more difficult by adding bands or weight resistance. Lunges are great for developing lower body strength, explosiveness, and balance.

Do Club Bells Work?

I have seen club bells growing in popularity recently, and was wondering if they were worth the seemingly exorbitant price? I’ve found plastic ones less that 15lbs that are still in the $50-$70 range. When I watch the videos on YouTube, it seems like massive chunks of the workout are entirely momentum-based, and focused on flexibility rather than strength. Before I shell out any money for these, I want to know if club bells have worked for any of my readers.


Bulgarian Bag Workout

I recently found another functional workout tactic that I’ve become obsessed with learning more about: The Bulgarian Bag. I came across an example of a Bulgarian Bag Workout that looks brutal, by YouTube searching Andre Galvao’s training methods.

The video I found on Youtube – Stephen Nave

Please write in the comments if you’ve ever done a Bulgarian Bag Workout, and how it worked for you. (The picture and the link above sends you to Amazon if you’re looking to purchase.)



How do I Increase My Deadlift Max?

Brian Dick

Improve My Deadlift

Improve Your Deadlift Max

The deadlift is the ultimate functional strength movement. Your entire musculoskeletal system is called into action to complete this complex, compound movement. All major muscle groups are activated, and extremely heavy loads can be lifted…or at least they can be, when you train regularly and practice proper form at all times. In addition to training and proper form, however, there are a number of other tips that can help you increase your deadlift max. (Note: Please remember that the deadlift can be a very dangerous and complicated lift. This lift should be reserved for expert lifters, and should only be performed under the supervision of certified lifting instructors or strength coaches.)

  1. Use Wrist Wraps to Attempt 100%+ of Your Unaided Max – The limiting factor on nearly everyone’s ability to improve their deadlift max is their grip strength. While it is critical to eventually improve your grip strength to improve your deadlift max, it’s also critical to push your other muscle groups past their comfort zone while you are improving your grip. During this phase, it’s recommended that wrist wraps be used to enable heavier weights to be lifted (than without wrist wraps). This will help to super load the quads and hips which would be impossible with the limitation of your grip strength.
  2. Deficit Pulls With Sub-Max and Rack Pulls With Max-Plus – Two of the best ways to break a deadlift max plateau is incorporating deficit pulls and rack pulls into your lifting routine. Deficit pulls are typically performed on a short box (or stacks of 45s) with a lower than usual deadlift weight. This movement increases the range of motion of the standard deadlift, and promotes stimulation of new muscle groups. Rack pulls by contrast are limited range deadlifts that allow for lifting weights far greater than your deadlift max. Rack pulls are basically performing the last 20% of the deadlift motion with your weight starting on a squat rack. This allows for large amounts of weight to be lifted to shock yourself out of your plateau.
  3. Front Squats – One of the major muscle groups activated in a standard deadlift are the quads. And what’s the fastest way to improve your quad strength? Go heavy on lifts that blast your quads! For this task, there is no better option than the front squat – either clavical loaded or Zercher method.
  4. Hips, Hips, Hips – One of the most under-addressed muscle groups in any workout routine are the hips. Because the hips are so critical for the deadlift motion, it is unusual that most people ignore this muscle group in the gym. How do you correct this? Well, one of the best ways to activate the hips is adding the four-way hip machine into your next workout. Another, albeit more advanced option, is including pistol squats into your leg days. Focus on squatting back on your one leg, as though you are sitting back into a lawn chair. This force activates your hip muscles and will help you to improve your deadlift max.
  5. Focus on the Push, and not the Pull – I’ve found that in my own deadlift motion, I often subconsciously focus on explosively pulling the weight from the ground. My greatest successes, however, come when I’m focusing on explosively pushing my heels and hips into floor on the initial movement. Mentally, I envision blocking a defensive lineman without using my hands. This vision has always helped add a few more pounds onto my reps and max. Try it out on your next lift and let me know what you think.

Do you want a safe way to estimate your deadlift max, without having to perform dangerously heavy deadlifts? Check out FSL’s DeadLift Max Calculator to determine your estimated deadlift max — based on 7 separate max formulas! You can also find FSL’s Big Three Max Calculator (Squat, Deadlift, Bench) under the Workout Calculator Tab. Please feel free to submit your successes and findings in the comments below!

You can also Sign Up Below for our mailing list to receive Your Free Copy of FSL’s Quantified Self: Downloadable Workbooks. These files are Excel worksheets with preloaded formulas. They allow you to plug in your own information to follow your performance and track your fitness results!

3 Day Functional Strength Workout

Brian Dick

Below you will find a sample Functional Strength Lab – 3 Day Functional Strength Workout. You can find a downloadable copy that can be modified in Excel below. I have included spaces in the downloadable copy to record your progress for each workout type.

The only equipment needed for this exercise:

  • Pull Up Bar
  • Kettle Bell (25-45 lbs)
Burpees (3 x 15) Kettle Bell 2 Hand Swing (3 x 20) Push Ups (3 x 30)
Pull Ups (3 x to failure) Leg Lifts on Pull Up Bar (3 x 10) Planks (3 directions x 30+ seconds)
Push Ups (3 x 40) Chin Ups (3 x to failure) Razors w/ Partner (3 x 12)
Body Squats (3 x 30) Plyo Push Ups (3 x 15) Kettle Bell Squat (3 x 20)
Abs 5 types (3 x 40) Box Jumps (3 x 10) Burpees (3 x 15)

If you would prefer a downloadable version of this workout (with spaces to input your progress) you can find it, here.