Why Functional Training is Often Misguided and How Resistance Machines Can Unlock More Strength

By on May 4, 2017

In the world of strength training and fitness, everyone is going mad for functional training and compound lifts. The argument is that exercise that utilizes multiple different muscle groups at once must be better for you as this is how you are ‘supposed’ to move your body. We evolved to climb trees, wrestle our prey and leap across chasms and so rope climbs, deadlifts and squats should more closely mimic our intended purpose. This in theory would result in more ‘useful strength’ and as we all know, using multiple muscle groups at once results in a bigger ‘hormonal response’.

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The insinuation here is that any form of ‘isolation’ training – especially isolation training that uses a resistance machine to lock your joints into place – must be useless.

What is the ‘real world’ analogue for chest press? Or lat pull down?


Hang on a minute there! Throw the baby out with the bathwater much?

I’m all for monkey bars and depth jumps (mainly just because they’re fun) but resistance machines are not useless. In fact, they are not inferior to compound lifts. In many ways, they’re superior.

You heard me.

I’m going to prove it and in doing so, I’m going to unravel some massive misconceptions about what ‘functional’ really means.

Why Compound Lifts Are Overrated

Firstly, let’s clear a few things up about compound lifts. They are useful, they are great at building strength and they are a good display of form and technique.

But they don’t increase the hormonal response. And they aren’t that much more functional.

The belief held by many is that squats and deadlifts will release more testosterone than isolation curls because they use more muscle and they use larger muscles.

Except this is not true. Here is the study to prove it. Thing is, a standard ‘bro split’ will still involve more than one muscle. This is especially true if you’re doing something like PPL (Push Pull Legs). It’s even more true if you’re whole body workouts.

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And the amount of muscle damage and metabolic stress you are causing per muscle is greater when you use isolation training (more on this in a moment).

And how about this? Exercise-induced growth hormone and testosterone don’t increase muscle growth anyway.

Exercising creates a small spike in testosterone (study), just like having sex does and just like winning at Mario Kart does (true story). None of these things will help you to build more muscle.

So, if you are busy squatting and deadlifting because you think it will produce more testosterone and thus help you to lift heavier weights, you are doing so in vein. Sorry!

Now about that whole ‘functional’ thing. I get that you don’t curl in the wild, I do. And I get that a chin up is probably more useful than a lat pull down.

But what on Earth is so useful about a deadlift? When have you ever had to squat down to the ground, grab a bar that is the right width for your hands and then stand back up with it? Ever?

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And you would have been even less likely to have done this in the wild. Barbells did not exist in the wild. And any tree branch would either be a lot lighter or too wide to grab your hands around. And your hairy ancestors would have had no compelling reason to pick them up.

Here’s the other thing: people are always banging on about how deadlift and squat must be done with perfect form. And you are using the precise same movement every single time.

But guess what? That’s not how it would have worked in the wild. No one would have taught you correct squatting technique and the floor was constantly uneven, just as rocks and branches were all different shapes. On the rare occasion that our ancestors did squat down to pick up a boulder, they’d have done so at an angle, with their knees pointing in all kinds of directions and probably while in a big hurry.

That is functional strength. Training your body to be exceptionally good at one very specific movement is not.

I’m not saying squats and deadlifts aren’t useful. I’m saying they need to get over themselves. They’re not that much more useful than resistance machine training.

More Problems With the Word ‘Functional’

In fact, what is really ‘functional’ is not to train yourself to be better at anything that your ancestors would have done. Your body is an adaptoid. You adapt to the conditions you subject yourself too (SAID – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). Your body has become better at sitting and typing because that is what is most functional for your current lifestyle.

Oh, and while we’re at it, there is no reason that training with heavy weights for low numbers of repetitions is better than training with lower weights and higher reps.

Training with high weight and low rep ranges builds strength and explosive power. This leads some people to claim that any exercise that goes beyond 8 reps will build ‘fake muscle’. This is where the claims that bodybuilders’ muscle is ‘just for show’ come from.

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Firstly: bodybuilders are still really strong. Trust me. At one point, Franco Columbu was thought to be the strongest guy in the world.

Secondly: training for more reps builds muscle endurance. This allows you to exert maximum force for longer. How is that not functional or useful? A powerlifter may have greater power for lifting something heavy off the ground, but the bodybuilder could probably lift a weight more times. And more often than not, endurance is more useful in the real world.

Resistance Machines Build Power and Size

And here’s the other thing: you will have a hard time building real size and strength with compound lifts alone. There is a reason that every bodybuilder still uses isolation exercises. There is a reason that Arnie said the isolation curl was the best move for building big biceps.

The fact is that triggering hypertrophy requires you to take the muscle to failure. While the precise mechanisms of hypertrophy are somewhat debated still, it almost certainly involves creating microtears in the muscle fiber and flooding the muscle with metabolites. Both of these things occur only once your muscle starts to reach failure.

When you perform a deadlift or a clean and press, your form falters out long before any one muscle group reaches failure. Your legs could keep going, your arms could keep going and your core could keep going. But the combined strength of all those muscles is no longer enough. You won’t be able to lift the weight and if you can, then you’ll potentially be at risk of injury.

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Conversely, if you are training with the trice push down, it is all on your triceps. That means you can get to the point where your tricep is physically incapable of pushing out even one more rep. Your tricep is screaming in pain and swollen from occlusion. The brain has had to recruit every last muscle fiber and you’ve torn plenty of them. You stop because you can’t go on anymore.

Forcing your brain to recruit as much muscle as possible, by the way, is one of the key ways to make it better at doing that. I.e. this is one of the key ways to get stronger. Maybe not on big lifts, but on pure crushing power in a range of specific moves.

Don’t want to be strong in only specific moves? Then train in all of them. Problem solved!

How to Unlock Your True Strength With Resistance Machines

Resistance machines also make it much easier to start playing with all kinds of other techniques: like drop sets, like negatives, like cheats, like assisted reps. These are all things that are very hard and potentially dangerous to do when you’re training the ‘big lifts’.

Resistance machines also allow you to train with overcoming isometrics (pushing against an immovable force) or to very slowly lower the weight. They let you attempt your pure 1 rep maximums. And by combining all these different techniques, you can create brutal workouts that also happen to greatly strengthen the ‘mind muscle connection’.

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Even going for a ‘one rep max’ is very dangerous using a compound movement, whereas you can safely drop a resistance machine and not strangle yourself.

The resistance machine simply creates a safe environment where you can push yourself beyond your usual limits. That’s where growth happens.

While compound lifts build technique, isolation moves let you maximally contract a single muscle and strengthen that connection. This is how you can build the kind of strength that Bruce Lee had.

A typical workout on a chest press for me might involve the following:

  • A 1RM attempt
  • Static contraction (pushing against a weight you know you can’t lift in order to train the nervous system to recruit more muscle)
  • A huge drop set (train to failure, drop the weight down, train to failure, drop the weight down)
  • Negatives (use assistance to lift a weight that’s too heavy and then very slowly lower it back down)
  • A flush set (a light weight done to very high rep ranges to flush the muscle with blood and

This is brutal and it will train fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fiber, while also strengthening the nervous system and triggering lots of hypertrophy.

It’s also a kind of training I think most people ignore when using resistance machines though. Perhaps you aren’t making the most from your chest press because you haven’t thought about all the different ways you can use it and all the intensity techniques it will let you try safely.

***

Again, I want to reiterate and say that deadlifts and squats have their place. The point is that you shouldn’t be an ‘exercise snob’ because bodybuilders have been using isolation moves for decades with great results. I find that the people who look down their noses at bicep curls don’t tend to last all that long in the gym.

All the proof you need that isolation movements build size. Sorry if I'm 'preaching' to the choir...

All the proof you need that isolation movements build size. Sorry if I’m ‘preaching’ to the choir…

Ultimately, the most important thing in any training regime – especially if you’re interested in performance – is variety and challenge. So, don’t ignore this great piece of training equipment.

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.