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Why Isolated Strength Training Fails & Functional Strength Methods Succeed

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 21 August 2014
Hits: 12223

This is quite a controversial subject for many people, especially people in the body building scene. And I would like to start off by saying I have nothing against body building if that is your passion and that is what you like to do. I just have a problem with people adopting body building techniques who are not body builders and want to become fit and healthy. And especially people who go to someone for a rehabilitation or injury prevention training program  and think they are doing "functional training" or "core training" but are really using a muscle based approach no different to body building. This type of training has taken over almost all of the gyms you go into these days, and even in the rehab world itself with physiotherapists, specialists, Pilates even, there is still a real emphasis on muscle based training. I myself used this approach early in my career as a personal trainer 11 years ago. And although some people recovered well from some injury or pain there were many people that never really improved or seemed to be continually re-injuring themselves, myself included.

I say this to my team of trainers everyday, "If you only remember one thing that I ever told you, make sure it is to use movement and continue to develop and learn more about how we move". For as much as people talk about it, very few actually understand or really know it. This year I put together a great Free Report showing how to incorporate many of the things that we talk about in our blogs, videos etc. This is basically the map of how to use movement if you are a beginner or injured, and also if you are advanced and elite. You can get this below.

It was about 2009 when I started to doubt my whole training method and begun looking for better answers. For almost all of the information I had up to that point was a muscle based approach. I had become qualified in Pilates for both Mat and reformer and had been working with some health professionals who were sharing some of their tips and techniques for various injuries. Plus on top  of that I had copped more than my fare share of injuries myself from various sports so I had a real first hand taste of what rehab was like. And it was these factors that affected me personally that really made me question the current method of exercise  selection and come to the conclusion that it was not the muscles that were the problem it was my movement patterns. And this was the time I also lost complete confidence in Pilates as an effective rehabilitation program as it completely ruined my body, creating multiple dysfunctions in my body from breathing and diaphragm restriction to eventual osteitis pubis and an 18 month chronic condition.

It was a big step for me to decide that everything I knew up to this point was wrong! I had spent 4 years developing skills and training heaps of clients, I was busier than ever. Only to come to this realization that my program sucked! All the Fitness Instructors and Personal Trainers I worked with continued to write training programs for clients that would break the body into various body parts and even individual muscles or muscle groups – they talk about chest, back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. Whereas I began to talk about programs in terms of Movements, using the slings and bio-motor abilities like balance, agility, co-ordination etc. Instead of breaking the body into muscles my emphasis was on movement patterns like Squat, Lunge, Twist, Bend, Push, Pull & Gait. I had learned this through various courses I had completed  with Paul Chek and the Chek Institute and now began to also adopt a very important quote that is the cornerstone of my program design today..... "if you are not assessing, you are guessing". 

Recently I had a young client aged only 14 come in to see me for a knee problem that she had not been able to resolve. So far she had been to 3 different health practitioners for little result, and if anything her problem had become worse. When assessing her I could straight away see where her problems lied - Posture and Movement Patterns. She had a very lordosis type posture that creating hyper-extension around the knees and also around her pelvis. Our stretch assessment which involves 20 tests showed only one area that looked tight - her quads and hips. So far the treatment she had been receiving was trying to loosen her up, as her hamstrings appeared tight but on examination they were in fact overstretched and what we refer to as "taut". Our rehab program now was going to be a complete contradiction and opposite to what she had been doing previously. It has now been only 3 months into her program and her results are amazing. Watch the video below to hear her story and see her in action


I became fascinated with how Paul Chek came up with his Primal Patterns of movements and began reading more and more of the books that he referenced like Anatomy Trains by Thomas Meyer, Assessment & Treatment of Muscle Imbalance by Vladimir Janda and Motor Learning and Performance by Richard A Smidt and Timothy D Lee, and more recently the book simply titled Movement by Gray Cook. This gave me much better insight as to how we really move and also about the history of weight training and strength training. And it is amazing once you start reading some of the old books and really dig deep into the origins you find some amazing stuff.


I also highly encourage you to watch the DVD by Paul Chek on Neurodevelopmental Approaches To Spinal Pathologies as he explains this in great details. Way back in the 1950‟s there was a team of highly educated physicians and researchers brought together to conduct extensive muscle testing as a result of improving muscle function to many emaciated patients who had wasted muscle mass due to the polio epidemic. Without an improvement in muscle mass these people could not function in society.  Most of their research was conducted with the subjects lying on a table and the researchers did their best to isolate individual muscles and learn their effects on bones and joints as it gave them a lot of information in identifying when a person was starting to suffer the effects of the muscle-wasting polio disease. After several years of adopting an isolation type training approach ( bicep curl, leg extension etc ) they found even though they could add muscle to the patients they COULD NOT improve function and overall movement sufficient for daily living. The researchers completely scrapped their research and started again with a completely new approach of developing a system that could improve the body’s ability to move, and develop strength using complex exercises to enhance the nervous system and improve movement patterns, that would later be defined as PNF. This was ground breaking research and is the cornerstone of many advanced movement patterns and rehabilitative programs for paralysis and various conditions today.

Now this is where it gets interesting because at the same time ( the 1950’s) these highly respected physicians that had just abandoned their original method of isolation of muscles, because the found it did not work, found the bodybuilding rising to prominence using this same information to support their method. The bodybuilders had a great degree of knowledge of anatomy and muscles so this information was like gold. But they had little respect for movement when designing training programs because their goal was to look good, not move good. Like I said at the beginning I don't have a problem with body building if you are into that. Unfortunately to this day, bodybuilding principles continue to dominate gyms & personal training programs although the vast majority of the population do not want to look like bodybuilders!  In the 1970‟s this went to a whole new level when a guy called Nautilus produced a range of machines that allowed people to isolate muscles allowed for an increase in the amount of weight or load, an exercise variable that we all know is required for building muscles. At first, this sounds like a great idea as the machine enables you to execute with great technique and you can also sit down while you do it!  But have you ever noticed why are bodybuilders so much weaker, even though they have more muscle, than traditional strongmen? Watch this clip on You Tube to see the much smaller strongman destroy the body builder with almost every exercise. If you want to look good that is one thing, but most of the people I see and train come to me to improve daily life fully integrated and function-based movements to improve their strength and fitness. Sure they want to look good but they don't have the time to train different body parts, it is boring and many of them suffer from some form of postural injury or pain. The body when integrated perfectly, is a linked system that can more effectively absorb, distribute and produce forces within the body. The body utilizes multiple segments and joints, so the interaction between them become vital to the overall performance of the chain. Your body does not know the difference from a bicep to your calf muscle. It only knows movements.

To see a comparison of machines versus movement read our article Which Is Better The Squat or The Leg Press?

What Type Of Training Should We Do?

You can watch the videos above to get a better explanation of this rather than reading massive amount of text.

You must design your program around principles of movement and enhancing posture. If your training has this in mind, you will become strong, fit & healthy guaranteed. The Movements you need to include in EVERY PROGRAM are:

SQUATS, LUNGES, PUSHING, PULLING, BENDING, TWISTING and GAIT ( walking or running). These are referred to as Primal Patterns and a very big part of Paul Chek's training programs with the CHEK Institute. If you have the aim of trying to improve your body's ability to move you will also develop your body's muscles. Because don't the muscles make you move? It seems pretty simple doesn't it, but for some reason nearly 98% of the fitness world and the rehab world for that matter seem to forget this. Training muscles on their own have their place, being needed right at the beginning stage of rehab for example. But, you MUST move on from this with the intent to do all movements in a standing position, at a level that is higher than you need for life. If you can achieve this, injury is never going to be a concern for you, sporting or work performance improves and basically you will just love life.

These are some of our other articles that show this movement principle of isolation to integration exercises in action

Abdominal Training

Knee Pain and Weak VMO

Piriformis Syndrome

Activate The Nervous System

Evidence from latest studies and in our own specific case study with Olivia, and countless other clients with rehabilitation and sports, (see testimonials) prove that strength increases in line with the development of the nervous system, which is of more importance to the body in terms of exertion and development of muscular strength. Always remember the brain controls muscles, not the other way around. Research has indicated that there are three likely determinants of strength gains: improved motor-skill coordination; increased motor-unit activation; and undetermined neurological adaptations. And research from various studies confirmed that strength gains in young performers (such as Olivia) could be attributed in part to increased neuromuscular activation. Neuromuscular activation is highest when the body performs complex movements such as a squat and a 1 arm shoulder press and the strength gains are significant as a result when this type of training is used as opposed to traditional weight training exercises like leg extension and bicep curls.

The purpose of conditioning and going into a gym is to teach your body how to become smarter and rise to a new level of movement incorporating various abilities such as strength, balance, co-ordination and agility. A bit like an upgrade on your computer. You are in a controlled environment so that under the guidance of a coach you can master all of the different types of exercises that are necessary for you, individually, first and then necessary for hobbies, sports second.
Your ultimate goal should be to master every form of movement enough times that it becomes automatic!
Once you learn to squat properly in a gym you don’t worry about your technique when you’re playing a sport, moving something at work or even just lifting something in the garden. If you’ve done it right in the gym, it’s already built into the system.
This is what is referred to as a Motor Engram. The more frequently you perform an action the quicker you react to the command. This is because patterns of movement that are performed frequently are stored at the spinal cord level, and not the brain. And it only takes about 300-500 to learn an engram the first time, but over 5000 perfect reps to change a faulty one!
This is why it is so important for a new gym goer or someone recovering from injury to learn ONLY GOOD MOVEMENTS. This way it will teach the body the perfect automatic movement it needs to prevent further injury. We like to use an IPAD app called Ubersense to help track video motion of our clients and compare their technique to ours. And if you play sports I highly encourage you to watch the video above with the complete assessment of movements and abilities for sport and also read this article The 8 Must Haves For Sports


Forget training your body in the gym using chest, back, shoulders, quads etc etc. And start using Squat, Lunge, Bend, Twist, Push, Pull and Gait and you will see results like never before. Try to use cables, dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight exercises, that are completed in a standing position. And don't neglect the importance of postural retraining and corrective exercise as these will enable you to complete the difficult exercises like lunges more effectively. Always remember "The Body Knows Only Movement, It Does Not Know Muscles".

If you live overseas or interstate we provide many great programs you can download as videos and ebooks. Go to our Online Shop for more details or click any of the images below to find out more.