These days, ‘functional strength’ is all the rage. Functional strength is described as the type of strength that has real world benefit as opposed to the kind of strength that looks good in the gym but doesn’t really apply anywhere else.
This is where something like the kettlebell comes in and it’s the main reason that it has become such a popular tool. The kettlebell is essentially a dumbbell that has a more ‘awkward’ shape. In this case though, ‘awkward’ is a positive thing because it means you have to stabilize yourself while you train and fight the urge to lean to one side. It means that the weight shifts as you go through the repetition and it means you’re fighting momentum and inertia. This is similar to picking up a tire or a bottle of milk, or to wielding a sword in a fight.
On the other hand, curling a dumbbell is not ‘functional’. Dumbbells are designed to isolate the biceps. They do this by challenging us to go through repetitions hinging at the elbow joint and nowhere else. The move is steady, controlled and deliberate but nowhere in real life do we use our bicep in isolation in this manner.
The argument goes then, that we shouldn’t train in this way, because it isn’t using the body in the way that the body was designed to be used. Instead, we should train with kettlebells and with ‘compound’ movements that train multiple muscle groups together; like squats, deadlifts and military presses.
And what we certainly shouldn’t be using are resistance machines like the chest press and the lat pull down.
Why There’s Still a Place for Isolation Training
Compound lifts and functional training are very in vogue right now and for the most part, this is a great thing. Functional training is all about training for your health and performance rather than the way you look in the mirror and that is to be commended.
But that said, there’s still benefit to looking strong and some people get a kick from that. If that is your main goal, then actually training with isolation movements – like dumbbell curls and chest presses – is useful. When you isolate the muscle, it’s much easier to get a pump and to flood it with the metabolites necessary to stimulate growth. It’s also much easier to cause microtears in the muscle fiber, which are also believed to play an important role in muscle growth. This is why nearly every bodybuilder still uses isolation training as a key part of their routine. If you want big biceps and a big chest, there’s still a reason to use the chest press and a few dumbbells.
Of course there are other scenarios where resistance machines come in handy too – such as those scenarios that they were largely designed for in the first place. Resistance machines are ideal for people who don’t have much experience in the gym for instance, who have health complaints or who aren’t confident lifting and moving around large amounts of weight.
That’s because resistance machines help to guide the user through the movement and they catch the weight if you drop it. This means that you can safely use a much heavier weight than you otherwise could and you don’t have to lift it in the first place to get it into position.
Resistance Machines Can be Functional Too
What’s more though, is that resistance machines can be used for functional training too.
One example of this is using a resistance machine in order to attempt a one rep max or even to use overcoming isometrics (trying to lift weights heavier than you’re capable of). Both of these techniques are highly effective for increasing the brain’s ability to recruit muscle fibers, thereby helping you to gain more control over your muscles and more raw strength.
Machines can also be useful in a number of similar situations. For instance, they can be used to perform accentuated negatives – where you increase the weight during the lowering portion – or extended drop sets where you drop the weight each time you reach failure in order to keep performing more reps (great for increasing muscle strength, endurance and size).
All this is possible because resistance machines keep the weight in position for you and provide a safety net. The result is that you can train in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible and push your body further without worrying about dropping dumbbells on your toes or taking up the entire gym.
In short then, resistance machines certainly have a place and you shouldn’t write them off just because a few health fads decide you don’t need them!