"'Master,' he now said, 'I have heard of an exercise, in involving suspended rings. To achieve the perfect lunge, piercing the hole and making no contact with the ring itself-"
[Murillo, the instructor] snorted. 'Yes [. . . ] But as an exercise, I am afraid its value is limited.'
Murillo eye the young man for a moment, and then sighed. 'Very well. The exercise requires too many constraints, few of which ever occur in the course of a real fight. You achieve point control - useful point control, I mean - when it's made integral to other exercises. When it's combined with footwork, distance, timing and the full range of defence and offence demanded when facing a real, living opponent [. . . ]"
- Murillo and his student, from Steven Erikson's "Toll the Hounds" (2008)
This quote articulates my own problems with some martial arts training very eloquently. It also applies to how I see some forms of weight training, especially machines.
A machine creates a set of controlled circumstances - all you really need to do, generally, is sit down, grab some handles (or put your feet on legs on a padded lever arm or a plate), and push or pull. You don't need to exercise any control of the weight. You don't need to determine its path, or prevent it from going where it doesn't belong. You don't even need to go get the weight and set up. It's just sit, grab, and manipulate. Your muscles will get stronger - resistance is resistance after all - but you won't be able to apply it to the same degree outside of a machine. You effectively create the ability to move a machine with heavier resistance rather than get a level of muscular strength that can apply more broadly. Your body adapts, after all, to what you challenge it to do. If you never challenge its ability to move in a three-dimensional range of motion against an unstabilized weight, it won't get any better at it.
I believe machines have some utility, but far less than any health club floor would lead you to believe.
Admittedly, barbells and dumbbells also provide a degree of artificiality to training - ergonomic grips, easy load increments, consistent distribution of the load - but they do so to a lesser degree than machines. Putting 135 overhead with a barbell is easier than putting 135 overhead when it's a sandbag or a person or a keg, but it's much more applicable to the problem than 135 pounds on the seated shoulder press machine. The machine never challenges you to stop that weight from moving around off the pre-grooved path.
What are you doing in your training that is too far divorced from what you are actually training for?
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