Which Muscles Does A Functional Trainer Work? Build Muscle?

A functional trainer is an expensive piece of equipment. Before you spend that amount of money, you want to make sure you can train all the body parts you want. Which muscles can you work with a functional trainer and if it builds muscle.

A functional trainer can work out almost every muscle in the body because the double height adjustable pulleys provide a lot of freedom where the resistance comes from. Working out on a functional trainer can build muscle as long as exercises are performed with proper volume and intensity.

Read more about how you can use a functional trainer to train so many different muscles and how it builds muscle.

Not sure how to decide which functional trainer is right for you? Click here to find everything you need to make the right decision.

What does a Functional trainer do?

A functional trainer is a gym machine with two weight stacks which are connected to two cables. The cables run through a pulley system which allows you to have those cables provide resistance from a wide range of heights. Sounds a bit complicated? Take a look at the pictures below and it’ll be a lot clearer.

A functional trainer is a popular home gym machine because it’s incredibly versatile and provides a holistic way of working out. It’s very functional… They aren’t cheap but you don’t need much else.

As said, a functional trainer has two weight stacks. You can choose how much weight you want to lift by putting the pin in different plates so it picks up the weight you want. That weight is lifted using a cable which makes its way through a pulley system. The exerciser can attach a plethora of different attachments to these cables for different exercises.

The height of the pulley can be adjusted from almost on the floor to about 80” high. This allows you to do a lot of different exercises since the machine can provide resistance from almost any angle as long as you put your body in the right position. By adding a stability ball or bench there are even more options.

A functional trainer provides a constant resistance to the cable. You can set the resistance by changing the position of the pin in the weight stack. The resistance curve of a cable machine is different than for a barbell or dumbbells.

So let’s take a look at which muscles you can train with a functional cable machine and which exercises you can do for each body part.

Suggested: Functional trainer maintenance guide

Which muscles can be trained on a Functional trainer?

To train a certain muscle, you have to simply contract that muscle with enough resistance to stimulate it to get stronger and/or bigger. This is why a functional trainer is so versatile. The ability to have resistance come from pretty much every direction allows you to train almost every muscle in your body, as long as you know how to do it.

A functional trainer for a home gym can work out almost every muscle in your body. There are a few exceptions like face muscles but those aren’t ones you want to work out with a machine anyways. Some knowledge of how the body works and how to position it is necessary to get the most of a functional home gym.

A functional trainer can provide many exercises to train;

  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Back
  • Chest
  • Core
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Shoulders

Yes, those are body parts but you can find ways to focus on almost every muscle inside that muscle group.

As long as you know which muscle you want to work, you can find a way to do so with a functional trainer. Just find out in which way the muscle works and apply resistance in the opposite direction. And because there is so much variability in pulley height and body position, you can always find a position and angle that works for a specific muscle. For example, your bicep brings your wrist closer to your shoulder. So to train your bicep, adjust the cable of the functional trainer to apply resistance in the opposite direction.

Alternatively, a good workout program will help you get a full body workout without having to gather a lot of knowledge about biomechanics although have a little bit is still very useful.

Aside from that, you need enough attachments to attach to the cables. Different attachments can be used for different exercises or even give a different twist to the same exercise. Most of these double weight stack home gyms come with a decent variety of attachments already but you might want to buy some more depending on which ones you’ve got already.

Suggested: 5 Essential cable gym attachments

At this point you might be thinking; wait a minute, the cables only pull in one direction, how can that provide resistance to all the muscles in my body if they move in different ways?

Well that’s because you can change the height of the pulleys. The height of the pulley decides the height the resistance is coming from. Put the pulleys in the highest position and the resistance comes from above, in the lowest position from the bottom and in the middle it comes from the …middle.

And while the machine only pulls in one direction, you can change the position of your body to make that direction the right one.

Does a functional trainer build muscle?

If you can do so many exercises on one machine, is it going to be any good? Is it going to make me stronger and/or grow my muscles?

A functional trainer provides enough resistance for beginners and intermediate lifters to grow muscle. Advanced lifters will need more resistance on some exercises than a functional trainer can provide. Combining a functional trainer with a barbell setup is a great combination for the advanced.

If you follow a good workout routine and your diet is in check, you’ll be able to grow muscle and get stronger with a functional trainer.

To keep it very simple, muscles get stronger and bigger when you put stress on them they’re not used to. If you then eat and sleep enough to facilitate the recovery, you’ll get stronger and bigger.

Ok, that is an oversimplification and there are countless details and nuances but for the vast majority of people it is close enough. If you’re an advanced weightlifter, you’ll have to employ more complicated tactics but if you’re a beginner, it works.

Diet and sleep have nothing to do with any type of gym equipment, that’s all up to you. The gym equipment is there to provide enough stress (resistance) to create a growth impulse. The functional trainer is perfect to stress the muscles in different ways and progressively stress them more by increasing the weight.

Free weights are the king of building muscle but most people are quite intimidated by them. A functional trainer is much more approachable and with the right workout you can get very similar results. In fact, if you’re now working out with free weights, try adding cable exercises to your routine. Using both will actually compound the effects.

Combining free weights with a functional trainer can provide extra muscle gains compared to using only one of the two. That’s because both types of equipment provide their own muscle growing benefits. They load the muscle up in different ways which means more growth impulses.

That said, if you’re looking for functional, real world strength, good physique but not huge, a functional trainer alone is great and can get you the results you want.

For pure muscle growth, a barbell and dumbbell setup is going to be slightly more effective for intermediate lifters although the difference isn’t huge.

Only if you want to get really big/strong it will be useful/necessary to use free weights. Especially barbells allow you to lift a lot of weight which facilitates growing bigger muscles. However, the majority of the population just wants to look fit and you can build a very good physique with only cable exercises.

To grow muscle, you need to stimulate the muscle with enough volume (Sets and repetitions) and intensity (resistance). Volume doesn’t depend on equipment. Most functional trainers can provide 75-100 lbs. of resistance per pulley which is enough to provide high intensities for most muscles.

Suggested: Functional trainers with most resistance

There are a few strong muscles that can handle more weight after some training like the glutes and quadriceps. If you want to train those muscles with heavy weights, getting a functional trainer with built in smith bar or a separate barbell setup is a good idea.

Why is a functional trainer functional?

A functional trainer allows training on your feet which means you involve the whole body to move the weight. This doesn’t only strengthen/grow the muscle you’re targeting but all the muscles that keep the body/joint stable during that movement and transfer the resistance to the floor. This creates functional, real world strength.

The ‘functional’ part of the name comes from the way these machines allow you to work out. You perform most of the movement while standing on your feet. This means you have to use your whole body to keep yourself in place and stable.

Training on your feet has as a benefit that you don’t just train one muscle and make that stronger but forget about the ones around it. You have to use the whole kinetic chain from the body to the floor to create the force to move the weight stack. This means you’re building strength that can be used in the real world and that’s why it’s called ‘functional’.

When you isolate a single muscle in training and make that specific muscle stronger and bigger, you might not actually be able to perform much better in the real world because in the real world, you need all the other little muscles around it and all the way to the floor to be stronger and work together to lift a fridge or move a box. In fact, if you don’t have fully developed kinetic chain but one muscle is stronger, you’re more likely to get injured when you try to use that strength in the real world.

It’s possible to add a bench for a few exercises as well which gives you more exercise options and allows you to isolate some muscles when you want. So adding a bench is a good idea since it’s something relatively cheap but adds a good bit of functionality. Since most people want a combination of becoming stronger overall and looking better, training with a combination of different styles of exercise is going to work best.

Suggested: Best functional trainers with built in power cage

Wrapping up

A functional trainer is an excellent choice for your home gym if you’re looking to build usable real worlds strength and a good physique while not having the risk and mess of free weights. A functional trainer is a single piece of gym equipment that can be used to work out almost any muscle in the body. While expensive, a full free weights setup of high quality barbell, dumbbells, weight plates and power cage doesn’t cost that much less.

Click here to find the best functional trainers for a home gym.

Best Cable Machine Accessories

Make your cable trainer experience even better with these accessories.

  • PlateMate: One or two platemates (Amazon link) can help you increase the weight more gradually on your weight stack. Just stick them onto your weight stack.

Find the most complete functional trainer that includes most of these accessories by clicking here.


Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to HomeGymResource.com. I've been going to the gym for about 15 years and am now looking to build my own. In the process I've learned many things I'd like to share with you.

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