Have you ever tried to switch from a selectorized chest press (i.e. cybex, hammer strength, nautilis, etc.) to a barbell chest press? Or how about switching from a barbell chest press to a dumbbell chest press? Were you able to press the same amount of weight for one exercise versus the other? Chances are, no, you weren’t.
So what is the cause and significance of this phenomenon? Our training so often revolves around being able to push more weight on a guided machine that we often lose sight of what it is we are really working for: usable, functional strength. Usable strength is, with no great stretch of the imagination, strength that we can actually use when we go about our daily lives. It could be lifting a large stack of plates and placing them in the kitchen cupboard. It could be helping a friend move his couch into a new apartment. Our anatomy was designed to allow us to run, jump, squat, bend, reach, rotate, pull, etc. Unless your resistance training program puts your body in various compromised positions where the muscles that stabilize at your joints are co-activated with the primary movers, then you are not building a completely usable form of strength.
I will share with you a very simple yet often overlooked principle of athletic training. It is called the SAID principle. SAID stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. The SAID principle states that your training methods and variables are going to dictate the results of your program. So if you are in a seated position, pulling or pushing a load in a defined, guided range, then your body is going to adapt to become really good at moving in that particular plane. There in lies the problem. During our daily activities of living, when are we ever in a seated position, moving in a guided plane? Never!
This is not to say that guided weight machines do not have their purpose in the weight room. They are a great tool for beginners to develop safe movement patterns initially. But balance, progression, and progressive overload are the keys to any great exercise program. Incorporating functional exercises, or ones that will translate well to our everyday activities, will allow for you to develop a more applicable, usable form of strength with infinite variations. So if the time comes when your friend needs help moving some furniture, you will be a prepared, if willing, participant!