Why not just lift weights?
Good question. There are several issues.
Here is a definition to get started: Functional strength is the ability to use the total body plus supporting structures to meet specific physical demands.
The body will adapt only to those stresses placed on it. Said differently (and this is a mantra with some trainers) you only improve what you practice. This is called the Principle of Specificity.
Functional training attempts to use the body as a unit and stimulate the nervous system to treat certain movements as atomic, i.e. to get used to firing them from start to finish. A lot of this thinking actually comes from rehabilitation, where it is pretty clear if a person lacks the ability to perfom a function such as walking. Functional training is aimed a movements, not groups of muscles.
Functional strength, while aided by power, is far from synonymous with it. Lifting weights trains one type of strength (raw strength) in one plane of motion and does it very well. This is simply too optimized for a long-term martial arts training program but can’t be beat for getting stronger. Use it wisely.
There are two groups of people who train with weights this section address. Powerlifters, the people who train to lift huge amounts of weight, and body sculptors/builders, who train to reshape their bodies. I’ll call these collectively lifters. It is the powerlifters who make arguments about strength training. Why not? That is their business.
|Halil Mutlu winning a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
A world class weightlifter.
|Stan McQuay A world class body builder.|
OK, for you purists out there, yes I know the difference between a weightlifter and a powerlifter. Weightlifting is an Olympic sport with two movements, the snatch – in which the weight is lifted above the head in a single movement – and the clean and jerk – in which the first phase of the movement, the clean, brings the weight to the shoulders in one ‘clean’ movement before it is thrust or ‘jerked’ overhead. Powerlifting is another event that tests the squat, deadlift and bench press.
I am trying to make a difference between people that lift weights to do something competitive with them vs. people who compete using the results of weight training. The former I collectively call powerlifters here while the latter I collectively call body sculptors. You won’t see a single weight in a body sculpting competition. I should point out the powerlifters usually don’t look all that different from other athletes in their weight class. They are certainly huskier, but body sculptors do look appreciably different.
By the way, body sculptors only look the way they do on the day of a competition, since a lot of ‘showing’ relates to balancing growth of new muscle (which also grows fat that hides muscle) and dieting (which loses muscle) down to a low enough body fat percentage (typically 6% – 8%) for the muscles to be seen. It is not unusual for body sculptors to undertake often alarming dieting practices and such in the days before a meet. Usually body sculptors will do a sequence of sodium loading/carb depletion followed by a couple of days of carb loading with diruetics. The idea is to cause the muscles to suck up a great deal of carbohydrates and bloat, which makes them look larger as well as thinning the skin with dehydration. I know a couple of topnotch competitive body sculptors and they all claim that the pre-show diet is the hardest part of training. A mistiming of a few hours will destroy the cosmetic effect. I’m telling you this because if you think you will train in a gym and look like a body sculptor on show day, you are sadly mistaken. Stan McQuay, pictured above, is one of the very few genetically gifted body sculptors who doesn’t undertake extreme measures, simply reducing his bodyfat during competition season. He is, of course, quite unique in this respect.
Powerlifters tend to completely pooh-pooh functional strength and state (quite rightly) that strength is strength. This is mostly because statements about “functional strength” are incomplete. To use the term “functional training” you must supply the context. It must be functional for a specific purpose and the more specific the better, e.g. making your floor fighter faster. This is why we have several types of strength Effectively giving a classification of functional modes.
Now on the flip side of this, I’ve seen guys who obsess about bench pressing high loads, but lack the core strength to maintain form in a pushup. The short answer to powerlifters is: Powerlifting is functional training for something other than martial arts — in this case powerlifting itself.
The origins of these statements is ongoing chats with my powerlifting buddies who would say something along the lines that “if you really want to get strong, come with me and do deadlifts”. What I am trying to do is counter this by pointing out jujutsu does a lot more than deadlift. Don’t get me wrong, if you are weak or have some imbalance or just want to be strong (if you are over 40, start powerlifting!) then definitely do it.
Powerlifting is insufficient for Martial Artists
There is nothing in powerlifting per se that will prevent you from being fast or smooth, but most people I’ve met don’t have professional training. So before you take advice from someone on lifting, be sure they know what they are talking about. Pretty much every guy at the gym thinks he is an expert in bench press.
That said, here are some pointed reasons why powerlifting alone is insufficient:
Restricted range of motion
One must severely restrict the range of motion to lift high loads safely. There are only a handful of competitive lifting events for a reason. Moving loads in three dimensions with a variety of trajectories is not trained in any capacity. Said differently, of the three possible planes of anatomical movement, powerlifting can only train the sagital plane.
Wrong conscription of fibers
If you lift a heavy weight, your muscle fibers kick in as ST, FTA, then FTB (read technical details of hypertrophy for more about types of muscle fibers). We would like to have all the fibers conscript at once and this requires some specific neural training involving velocity.
Constant improvement as a mantra
No. It is goofy to think that you will be able to add 15-20 lbs. of muscle per year indefinitely. This is just common sense but a lot of powerlifters don’t consider it. The good ones take care to cycle their routines and have built in (a.k.a. “strategic”) deconditioning, but these are the minority in a gym.
For what it is worth, nobody has figured out why you cannot just pack on muscle year after year. For example, if you add a pound a week to your bench press starting at 20 years of age and going until you are 65 you would have added 2,340 lbs. At some point you hit a wall and can’t get past it.
However, a carefully controlled study for adding muscle showed that there is no difference in how much muscle someone who is in their 20s can add versus how much a person in their 60s can add. Both groups added the same amount of muscle over 12 weeks when using the same training routine. Much of the wasting seen in the elderly probably relates to inactivity as much as anything else. Stay active as you age.
If you think that you want to bulk up then you should consider cycling it into your training. Stick with compound exercises like deadlift, squat, and clean and jerk. And by all means find a local club with good instruction if you get serious. Many lifts are extremely technical (seriously!!) and just grabbing some large pile of iron is a terrible idea.
Of course, some of people try to overcome natural limitations by extrordinary measures, such as drugs and hormones. I cannot condemn those enough.
Food for thought: a lot of people with asthma have to take steroids (such as Prednisone) as part of their treatment. Even under the care of a trained physician, I run into a fair number who suffer joint death, called avascular necrosis, and have to get artificial joints. You cannot do any heavy lifting with most artificial joints. Don’t do drugs. Period.
(Note: I have two artificial joints and can do taiso just fine. This was one of the big motivations for the way this is structured.)
In any case, if you hop on the constant growth bandwagon you will eventually do what many a weightlifter does and either burn out or find you have so many joint issues (arthritis, for instance) that your poundages have to drop. Then you have nothing. We want something to maintain certain skills.
Now for the body sculptors and why that is definitely a no-no. One sculptor once went so far as to intimate that the goal was to look as much like an erect phallus as possible (odd thought that for female lifters). They spend a lot of time doing isolation exercises to just get bulkier and more defined.
If powerlifters train muscle groups, body sculptors train muscles. There are a bewildering number of these exercises and, being a gym rat, I’ve seen body sculptors spending as much as 3-4 hours working on some set of muscles. So in the time it takes me to do my workout, run a martial arts class, and clean up afterwards they are still in there doing yet another of their shoulder or pec sets. There is nothing wrong with that, but here is the gripe: Many folks who take up lifting do so without a clear-cut purpose and end up sort of mixing powerlifting and body sculpting. They waste a lot of time doing neither. Fuzzy goals give fuzzy results. They end up with preposterous strength imbalances that can be very hard to overcome.
More to the point:
- Isolation exercises make you slow. Every muscle that fires, called the agonist, has an opposing muscle called an antagonist. If they are not trained together and the antagonist is quite a bit weaker then it must fire longer to oppose the agonist. This is just like having a worn brake shoe on your car. You have to hit the brakes sooner to slow down. While proper training avoids this, the odd fascination most people have with big pecs, biceps and quads mean that these are practically the only muscles trained.
- Isolation exercises make you weak. When a muscle is in use (called in this case a prime mover) it needs to have muscles that act as stabilizers. If the stabilizers are weak then the body will not allow the prime mover to contract at full power less there be an injury. This more than anything else explains why someone can, say, curl some enormously high weight on a machine but has trouble carrying their groceries.
- Isolation exercises can train your muscle to misfire. The most famous example of this is the leg curl machine. The hamstring is made to straighten the hip when bent, although it also can bend the knee, being one of the few muscles that can act on two joints. This machine mis-trains the hamstring to do leg curls which can lead to a higher incidence of hamstring rips. Sure, it makes the hamstrings get bigger, but you’d better not be planning on using them for much of anything else.
- Weight machines are no safer than free weights. They allow you to use really crappy form and body mechanics with no idea what is wrong. The reason gyms have them is because the gym can hire completely unskilled workers at minimum wage. Most gym employees just sweep around the equipment and clean it off. Patrons use the machines which are supposedly safe. However, since the perception is that the machine is safe, they misuse them, sometimes massively. One of the most grisly shoulder dislocations I ever saw was from someone who was trying to use a pec fly machine with 60 pounds on it! Since he was having trouble moving the weights, he tried to use his abs in a massive situp to start the motion and his left shoulder came clean out of the socket. (The ball was by his ear. He went into shock as the hapless gym staff tried to ice it! Fortunately someone had the good sense to call an ambulance.) I doubt seriously he could have done that with free weights.