What Is a Functional Trainer? Does It Build Muscle/Strength?

Are you wondering what a functional trainer exactly is and what you can do with it? You can find the answer in this article as well as how to use a functional trainer to build muscle and strength.

A functional trainer is a gym machine that has two height adjustable pulleys attached to weight stacks. You can easily use a functional trainer to work out almost every muscle in the body and make it bigger and stronger.

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 Is a Functional Trainer?

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 then allow you to pull/push on them to do exercises. The pulleys are height adjustable so you can let the cables come from any direction. 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 other equipment either. 

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.

FYI, there are a few functional trainers that are loaded with barbell plates, click here to find out about that type.

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

Can a Functional Trainer Build Muscle?

To train a certain muscle, you have to simply contract that muscle with enough resistance often enough to stimulate it to get stronger and/or bigger. A cable machine is actually very good at providing this resistance. Cable machines often have a more ‘linear’ feel than free weights which means there is more tension on the muscle throughout the movement. 

Also, with weight stacks, you don’t have to worry about dropping the weight like you have to with a barbell or dumbbells. If you fail a repetition, the stacks will drop down but they won’t hit anything like free weights can. 

A functional trainer can be used to 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.

Once you know the movements to target the muscle you want, it’s a matter of doing that exercise often and heavy enough to grow muscle and strength. 

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 a good stimulus for most muscles.

So as you can see, a functional trainer is perfectly capable of being used to build muscle and strength. Following a good workout program is important but that’s exactly the same as with any other type of workout equipment. 

Suggested: Functional trainers with most resistance

There are a few strong muscles in the body 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. However, if you know how to properly isolate those muscles, 100 lbs. of resistance can also be plenty. 

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.

Why Is a Functional Trainer Called Functional?

A functional trainer allows training most muscles while standing 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.


Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to HomeGymResource.com. After working out in many different gyms for almost 20 years and helping people build their own home gyms, i've learned a few things i'd like to share with you.

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