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“Usable Strength”: Is there such a thing as ‘Unusable Strength?’

Two recent things occurred so close to simultaneously for me that, taken together, they begged for a blog topic. One was the mundane chore of helping a friend of mine unload and stack a truckload of plywood. The other was reading an article on bodybuilding.com in which a writer actually tried to sell anyone reading on the idea of “usable strength.”

The plywood thing was one of those typical jobs with which a guy will help his buddy. John needed someone to give him a hand unloading quite a few sheets of 4x8’, 1-inch thick sheets from his truck and stacking them next to the garage. Within a couple of minutes of starting the job, however, his wife called him into the house to grab a phone call.

Rather than wait for his return, I continued to unload and stack the wood by myself. In doing so, an increase in my physical capabilities became readily apparent; I was stronger than I’d ever been while performing such a task. The ease with which I was throwing around these sheets of wood surprised me even though I’ve been aware of my strength gains from bodybuilding for the past few years. My shoulder and arm strength working in conjunction had me practically toying with these sheets that might have had a lot of guys my age struggling.

The very next day, I saw the article on bodybuilding.com. It was a piece about the benefits of ‘kettlebell training.’ I’d heard of kettlebells – seen the unique design of what’s basically a ball of fixed weight with a built-in handle arching over the top – and witnessed the attempts to create mystique around something that’s just another tool of resistance for the muscles.

“Usable Strength”: Anyone’s welcome to explain it in the comment section

I was quite open to the description by the author of a kettlebell workout until he used that term and lost credibility with me: “usable strength.” That’s what he claimed as the unique benefit of kettlebell workouts. He said they build strength, just like weight training, but it is “usable strength.”

Excuse me… doesn’t the term ‘usable strength’ imply that there’s a type that’s “unusable?” Yet I can’t imagine how any strength that the muscles and tendons posses could be unusable. By its very definition – “strength” is usable… period!

Kettlebell Lifting
'Kettlebell Workout': I won't challenge their benefits unless "usable strength" is one of those claimed - with a debate in logic ensuing.

Of course, he could have meant that some strength is more usable than other strength. But… “No”… I can’t figure how that could be either. Look at that augmentation of usable strength I’d felt and displayed with the plywood chore at John’s house; it was fully usable even in terms of coordination in its interworking between my arms and deltoids.

In fact, I would challenge any kettlebell workout advocate to build as much “usable strength” with those little fixed-weight devices as is potentially built with traditional gym weight. The usable strength, or “functional strength” (another ridiculous term) you build with traditional weights is potentially limitless; its ceiling typically self-imposed by unrealistic training/recuperation schedules. The strength one can build with kettlebells is limited by both the fixed utility and fixed poundage potential of this workout apparatus.

Am I claiming that kettlebells don’t build strength or can’t provide a “good workout?” No… this isn’t an attack on kettlebells or anyone who likes to work out with them. Yet they are just pieces of fixed weight with built-in handles above the bulk of the weight. Regardless of what creative routine one conjures up to perform with them, they don’t provide some mysterious workout benefit that transports their usage into a unique realm of esotericism. They’re weights – pure and simple.

‘Usable Strength’: Did bodybuilding make me a Faster Swimmer?

When I was twenty years old, I did my first of what would be two tours through BUD/S Training. In this basic training for Navy SEALs, we did a lot of ocean swimming. In fact, there was a weekly two-mile timed ocean swim in which we were expected to improve on a continuous basis or there would be hell to pay.

My first ocean swims in class 128 of BUD/S Training were a disaster. Their success mostly depended on having strong thigh muscles because we were using swim fins in a sort of modified side-stroke to propel ourselves through the water. My underdeveloped thighs were hardly up to the task, leaving me struggling to keep up with my swim buddy and slowing me down just enough to catch hypothermia. The hypothermia slowed me even further, leaving my swim buddy and me coming over the finish line in a shivering, delirious, last-place finish.

Two years later, I was going through BUD/S again in class 141. This time, to my surprise, I was one of the fastest swimmers in the class. I consistently came in second place in those same two-mile timed ocean swims.

What had made the difference? How had I gone from one of the slowest swimmers to one of the fastest?

In the interim between my two tours in the training, a buddy of mine got me dabbling with weight training/bodybuilding. We did plenty of leg extensions – an exercise that targets the thigh muscles in a similar motion as that of kicking through the water with fins. This is the best explanation for the huge improvement in my swimming performance.

Funny… the strength I built in a gym with leg extensions was fully functional and quite usable.

“Usable Strength”: It wouldn’t be ‘strength’ if you couldn’t use it

This is not an indictment on anyone wanting to improve strength in a sport by practicing the movements made in that sport with added resistance, such as with a kettlebell. Likewise, I’d never knock the idea of swimming while wearing a weight vest in order to increase speed in the front crawl, side-stroke, or butterfly.

But I will assert that the idea that the strength these types of exercises build is more usable or functional than what can be built with traditional weights is asinine based simply on the presupposition inherent in the idea of ‘usable strength.’ The term implies that there’s a type that’s not usable – a connotation that, when widely accepted, is just another one taking the aggregate IQ of the human race a notch in the wrong direction.


John Lax

Usable strength is the equivalent of athletic/flexible strength. You stated you were in the SEALs, so you can understand that, when in hand to hand combat, all the strength in the world won't do you any good if you can't land a hit. Usable strength is the kind of strength that is applicable to a given situation. While you gained muscle strength with your leg extensions, it also built up speed in your legs, allowing you to kick faster under conditions which restricted movement. Because the exercise itself was ideal for what the desired outcome was, it bacame usable strength; however, if you had relied on something like squats to help you in that situation, the lack of the appropriate muscles being targeted would not have improved your time or standing anywhere near as much. Yes, the term "usable strength" seems quite outlandish, but it does exist. what kettlebell exercises do is incorporate movement and flexibility that most islation exercises, for the most part, cannot offer. I don't know if my explanation made anything easier to understand, as I'm not very good with words, but, in summary, usable strength is the combination of physical power, speed, and flexibility to uniformly perform a specific given task.


Yes, my mistake; I did mean leg extension. Regarding exercises though, body-weight exercises would engage more muscles than isolation or even some compound exercises alone, because making any kind of meaningful progress in them (maintaining proper form while increasing weight in squats, one's maximum number of pushups, etc.) does require the whole body to be reasonably strong and well developed in all facets, whereas isolation exercises and simple compound movements will require strength in some areas, but not necessarily others. For instance, since body-weight exercises often target the whole body, one has to have a reasonably strong chest, back, core, arms and legs in order to increase the number of proper pushups, pullups, lunges, etc., they can do in a set. However, since simple compound movements and isolation exercises tend to target more limited areas, one could be very good at hammer curls and dumbell flyes, but have weak legs, a soft back, and a neglected core. Furthermore, though areas not covered with compound movements can be covered with isolation exercises later, I guess the idea with 'functional' exercises is to encourage movements that strengthen as much as the body as possible in one sitting. Admittedly, I don't know too much about one's ability to gain muscle mass on body-weight and functional exercises alone, since all of the athletes, coaches, and personal trainers I've asked and observed in the past are lean and well-muscled, but not terribly large, so isolation exercises and compound exercises are probably more useful on that front. Regarding overall benefit for strength though, it seems that the general idea for functional workouts is to target all of the muscles one would use if they were in a common real-life situation that required strength and speed. Basically, think of which muscles you would use if you needed to sprint, run a mile, climb a tree, shovel snow, push a car, hold onto a ledge, carry an unconscious person for a long distance, pick up a dropped object, or fight off an enemy. Even though simple compound or isolation exercises may make one larger in some areas, success in all of those activities would require the recruitment of more of the whole body.

Scott Abbett

Hello Pierson,

Thank you for taking time to read and provide your comments.

You might have meant to say that 'leg extensions' are an isolation exercise. Leg presses are actually a 'compound movement' - in the same classification in that respect as 'squats.'

Please explain two things to me: How do bodyweight exercises "engage" more muscles than can be engaged with weight training exercises? And, if we don't engage a certain muscle with a compound movement, couldn't it just be engaged with a subsequent isolation exercise?

Over the years, I've heard the theory that free-weight squats build more mass than leg presses because they're more of a "whole body" workout. While I'll agree that the squats create more overall stress on the body, I don't know if it's true that this results in more leg mass than is achievable with the presses. Is it research-based knowledge or "bro science" (to which it's often referred)?

On one thing we can safely bet: The free weights are more likely to build balanced mass between the two limbs as the stronger side is not allowed to as easily compensate for the less-favored side. One way around this on leg presses is to cut the workout weight in half and work one leg at a time.

Personally, I've made terrific gains on leg pressing after hitting terrible plateaus on free-weight squats. There are many variables inovolved in making gains - enough so as to make the 'machines vs. free weights' a moot point until these other factors are accounted for.

In other words, let's say one person is training ineffectively in terms of their training/recuperation ratio but they're using what some "brilliant" trainer deems 'functional strength exercises.' A second person is training optimally in terms of muscle breakdown/recuperation but is using only machines for compound movements along with a lot of isolation exercises. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the second person gaining strength while the first one only gets baffled by bullsh#t from the trainer.

... And the strength gained by the second person would be usable strength while the gains missed by the first person would obviously be... un-usable.

Thanks! Please stop by again when you get a chance.



I think 'usable strength' refers to the engagement of more muscles during bodyweight and other 'functional' excercises, vs. the somewhat limited muscle engagement seen in isolation excercises. It's kind of like squats vs. using a leg press machine; they're both difficult excercises that can provide a good workout, but more is worked in a full-body excercise like the squat, vs. an isolating machine like the leg press. Isolation excercises are fine for advanced and intermediate individuals, but most personal trainers I've talked to recommend bodyweight excercises for beginners, and those looking to condition themselves for sports, work, or other hard physical labor.



Your last name does sound familiar in association with that class. You got a pic so I can attach a face with your name?




Hey Reuben,

Funny... I don't remember you either; that was a long time ago.

Go to my web page right here www.hardbodysuccess.com and you'll see a pic of me finishing Hell Week in the class you mentioned; the second friggin' time I finished painstaking week.


Reuben Lowing

I graduated BUD/s 141 and I dont remember you.


So... is that a rebuttal to my point or an agreement with it?

Kettlebell Workouts review

Kettlebell is like a full workout, but still diet and exercise goes hand in hand. women can use it to for muscle toning

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