Friday, April 20, 2012

Functional Training vs. Isolation Training

+Yuri Wolf asked me a very interesting question. I think this G+ topic is so important in fitness, I decided to post it again here. I'm going to disable comments. Instead, please comment on my original post at
Yuri Wolf - +Vladimir Kelman - could you please comment on the following:
A few years ago I took a short fitness course at NIH. The trainer, an ex-army PT instructor by his words, put a lot of emphasis on two keywords: slow and isolation. Essentially, all motions (this includes all exercises with weights) should be as slow as possible and I should make sure to be able to stop the movement any time. Moreover, the whole body must be as static as possible with only target group of muscles involved - heavens forbid I pull the weights with my back muscles if I'm doing a biceps curl.
As far as I understand, kettlebells are the opposite of that - the exercise is highly dynamic and every motion involves many muscles from ankles to wrists.
Changing fashions? Or there is something more rational behind these different schools? 

1. Slow movement.
That's a bit easier. As you know, there are different types of training.
On one pole, a pure Strength / Muscle Volume Training requires heavy weights, slow motion, minimum repetitions, isolation.
On an opposite pole, a pure Cardiovascular Training requires little to no weights, fast movements, a lot of repetitions.
Endurance Training may require some weights, requires regular speed movements, a lot of repetitions.
Kettlebell workouts are often constitute a super-high intensity cardiovascular training , but also include definite elements of both endurance and strength training (heavy weights). Most often kettlebells workouts are not intended for pure muscle volume gains.
2. Isolation.
Isolation is still important for pure muscle volume, strength training. Heavy weight lifters are for sure familiar with isolation. But smart weight lifters do not only isolation exercises, but even more functional training, which includes synchronized work of a significant parts of a body together, in sync.
Functional Training is a very popular, I's say a prevalent tendency now. It's a reaction to screwed fitness model of gyms, which put most emphasis to weight machines exercises. Machines provides a highest level of isolation... and they are extremely dangerous. Modern fitness says, that machines should be used only as helpers, as specialized tools for fixing some particular muscle weakness.
The great danger in using machines (and, to a less degree, heavy-weight lifting, biceps curls, bench presses, etc.) is that they lead to unbalanced body development. I.e. - strong biceps and weak triceps, undeveloped core. This leads to injuries. Those injuries not necessary happen in a gym, they happen outside. Unbalanced body, not trained to use [strong] muscles in sync, not trained to do compound and fast moves suffers a lot.
Moreover, not only a bias toward isolation is a cause of injuries, it also does not produce endurance, does not train a heart, and - surprisingly, - is less effective in developing muscle strength (and power). Modern theory says, that big compound moves (which might be slow) are more effective for gaining functional strength and even muscle volume. Basically, you give your body a much harder task, on which it responds by developing more power and strength.
3. A Good Form.
Functional training, kettlebells, etc. may be very dangerous as well. Big and sometimes fast moves can lead to improper form during exercises, which leads to spine injuries, knee injuries, etc. Improper form also prevents from muscle strength development. Just ask +Alexey Egorov of how much good kettlebell programs put emphasis on a proper form. Systems like SKOGG, Art of Strength, Mike Mahler's programs spend a lot of time on teaching proper technique, maintaining a form. That's an imperative.
The best book I ever read, which explains why old fashioned bodyweight functional training is far superior to modern machines and is healthier than heavy weight lifting is an ingenious Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade. Another interesting Dragon Door’s book is Raising The Bar by Al Kavadlo.
BTW, one single reason why I like P90X so much that even became a BeachBody Independent Coach ( ) is that P90X is much more a functional, synced, balanced training, than an isolation one.

Apr 4 11:26 AM (edited)  -  Edit


Yuri Wolf  -  Thanks! This makes a lot of sense. A couple of comments/questions:
- heavy weights, slow motion, minimum repetitions, isolation - that NIH Fitness Center trainer gave the following algorithm: weights that allow you less than 10 reps are too heavy for you; weights that allow you more than than 20 reps are too light. He recommended to select the load that gives 10-12 reps; try to stay at 15 reps most of the time; as soon as you feel you can do 20, up the load one notch. Where does it put his program on the Strength - Endurance - Cardio scale?
- kettlebells, as I understand, are much heavier than typical exercise dumbbells. Still, as you say, the key of functional training is multiple repetitions. How do you achieve it with kettlebells? By involving a lot of different muscles in each move, so the load is more distributed?

Apr 4 6:00 PM


Vladimir Kelman  -  You know, I'm not a professional, I'm just learning. Obviously, these numbers are not carved in stone. +Tony Horton in P90X course recommends weights which allow you to do 8-10 reps as strength training, 10-15 - as endurance tool. Pretty similar, right?
Kettlebells allow for many different exercises, but - as I understand on this moment - a majority of kettlebell exercises use pendulum, inertia, not slow "static" muscular moves which are more often used with dumbbells. These classic kettlebell moves - swing, clean, snatch, jerk - surprisingly employee more hip and core strength than hand muscles. They are really technical, these moves, more like an art. That's why - to my and Alex Egorov's big surprise they are so interesting, so dynamic / cardiovascular, and that's why it's possible to use heavy bells. (We both are doing SKOGG System kettlebell workouts)
I'm just a beginner, though - and have a seriously damaged lower back. So, I currently train with 12 kg (26.45 lbs.), 16 kg (35.27 LBS), and I am starting to use 24 kg (52.91 lbs.) for two hands swing only.

Apr 4 6:42 PM (edited)  -  Edit

Yuri Wolf  -  Pretty similar, right? - indeed!
They are really technical, these moves, more like an art - Yes, this is probably where a question of form becomes really important. Easy to hurt yourself with a wrong move.
Thanks a lot for your comments!

Apr 5 10:27 PM

Vladimir Kelman  -  I posted that question on TRX forum without asking you first, but I thought it's kind of interesting to everybody public question. Got a couple of responses there too.
TRX itself is a Suspension Training and is very functional.

Apr 5 12:36 AM  -  Edit

Yuri Wolf  -  I posted that question on TRX forum without asking you first - sure, it's a question on an open forum, belongs to the public. :-)
Got a couple of responses there too - yes, the experts seem to agree.

An Update:

The Circular Strength Training System® and Clubbells

This is simply a quintessence of a functional training. This is a whole new and exciting world. Scott Sonnon - an inventor of Clubbells - is a very accomplished martial artist , former champion in several styles, including Russian Sambo, US Team trainer. Scott Sonnon was voted one of "The 6 Most Influential Martial Artists of the 21st Century" by Black Belt Magazine in 2010.

His Circular Strength Training (CST) is ingenious. Read about it on RMax International and look for YouTube clips.
I'm just entering the wonderful world of CST. Today I did their Group eXercise DVD workout for a very first time. I did it partially, because it was too hard. Other programs created by Scott Sonnon are equally exciting. Look for Intu-Flow, Body-Flow, FlowFit, Prasara Yoga. Don’t miss downloadable TACFIT® Programs – another ultimate tool for learning advanced body movements.

I noticed that very often systems offered by martial artists are extremely healthy, well balanced, simply  the best. This apply to programs by Scott Sonnon, as well as programs offered by My Mad Methods, such as Evolution Kettlebell Groundwork DVD; Combat Kettlebell Systems and Shadow-Jitsu Bodyweight Training DVDs (with former professional MMA fighter and competitive grappler, Joey Alvarado)

Finally - rock climbing is great, combining it with calisthenics on pull-up bar, dip bars, and on a floor. Again, I cannot recommend more reading "Convict Conditioning" and "Raising the Bar" books by Dragon Doors.

An example of a Heavy Bodyweight + Clubbell Workout Day