Very often when we go to the gym, we see people doing plain and boring biceps curls, triceps cable extensions or rowing on the machines. And that’s not even the worst of it; with many people waiting in line to sit on a press or rowing machine, deltoid machine, leg press or smith machine. You may be wondering what I am talking about and maybe even questioning my sanity; and your confusion is not altogether unwarranted, I mean come on, a strength and conditioning coach saying that gym equipment sucks? Surely not?!
Well, yes, I am a S&C coach, and I „hate“ most of the common stationary fitness equipment one finds sprawled out over almost all gym floors today. ‘Why?’ You ask… Well please read the following explanations and suggestions and find out.
Be safe and climb the machine paradox Somebody once wrote when introducing machines to the fitness industry that they are safe to use and prevent injuries. Firstly, regarding safety, yes, it is safe to use them in practice, you don’t need to be very skilled and coordinated to push the platform on a leg press or pull some handles towards your chests. For these reasons they are safe. Secondly, do they prevent injuries? Yes they do, but only because the weights which are usually packed securely inside these crazy machines won’t fall on somebodies head or foot. Of course, this is not the type of ‘safety’ or ‘injury prevention’ we require when training. Nobody talks about preventing injuries away from the gym, like how they influence your overall fitness and vitality; such as when cleaning the house, playing with your children, moving furniture, climbing stairs, walking on ice in the winter etc.
For the sake of objectivity, before I go further into explaining why not to use machines or one- joint exercises (i.e. biceps curls), I want to give two situations which do indeed warrant the use of these machines and one – joint exercises, both in recreational and competitive sports. First case is a rehabilitation process when an athlete has to improve strength (and muscle mass probably) of an injured muscle as a prerequisite for more challenging exercises while standing in different feet positions. A second case is the so-called „Bodybuilding phenomenon“ where you desperately want to increase the size of that particular muscle to look better in front of the mirror, or an audience at Mister Olympia.
So, if you don’t find yourself in those two categories, you won’t benefit much by using these machines. With that said, here is a short-and-simple list outlining reasons why you should not train muscles, but instead train movements:
Muscles will be built! Regardless of whether it is a single – joint or multiple – joint exercise, the muscle will change its structure and size if you stress your body properly. When you perform multiple – joint exercises the neural component is more challenged. The neural component controls the muscles firing pattern, recruitment and synchronisation. Train your brain as much as you can, muscles are the brain’s slaves.
It’s functional! Functional, that’s something good, right? It is. It means that something you do has a positive influence (transfer) on something else. It ensures both effectiveness and efficiency in your work. In our case, when performing different exercises, in different planes and axis, on stable and less stable surfaces we develop strength and power, coordination and balance needed for our daily activities. With regard to our general well- being and vitality, I already mentioned that it will facilitate cleaning the house, gardening or any heavy work during the day. For top athletes it means that they will benefit by having the optimal body posture when changing place on the court or punching the opponent, by being stronger and quicker in their actions on the „battleground“.
It prevents injuries, trust me! The body is supposed to interact with gravity and the ground. So, do it in the natural way. Now I will address the important part of this post. Multi-joint and multiplanar exercises develop coordination, balance and strength. One fact that I really want to emphasise is that a strong and stable core can effectively connect the upper and lower body and its extremities. That provides optimal balance in everyday situations preventing people (especially elderly) from falling or injuring their shoulders, back or knees. Building the strength by sitting on a machine doesn’t challenge your kinesthetic senses- proprioceptors, mechanoreceptors, visual and vestibular apparatus. For that reason, we cannot expect to be balanced when standing on our feet.
It’s more interesting! Keeping the balance on both of your feet or a single foot is a constant challenge. Different body position, different workouts and fatigue can impair balance and once your center of mass is not above your base of support, you loose balance. Constantly ‘playing’ with your abilities and experimenting with new situations can make your training session interesting, fun and above all – effective.
It’s more challenging! Not everybody is competitive, and we need to respect this. For those who are (I hope the majority is), the machine- kind of workout is usually boring and not very challenging. Since these people often don’t do much research into fitness and workout methods they accept what is offered in fitness centres. Be curious, search a bit through the internet and you’ll find many interesting and tempting exercises.
It improves (motor) intelligence! Coordination is also called motor intelligence. Together with other qualities such as proprioceptions and balance it will improve your everyday motor challenges. It will also speed up learning new things, such as windsurfing, snowboarding or dancing.
Now, I hope you understand my philosophy. If you really enjoy „sitting“ on machines, and they keep you happy and motivated, you should feel free to continue doing so. But still, I think these 6 reasons should inspire you to make changes (if necessary) to your current workout routine. One big advantage when working with your body (i.e. performing push-ups, squats, inverted rows, lunges, one legged dead-lifts, chin-ups) or using olympic bars, kettle bells and dumbbells, resistant bands or medicine balls is a constant progression in your performance that you are able to see. Well yes, you can see a progression on the weight scale on a knee extension machine, but does that really make you happy? If you are unsure about how to make something more demanding or challenging ask staff in the gym or google it, or ask a friend who works in or has general enthusiasm for the fitness industry. Most important for you is to enjoy your workout. Always adjust the exercise demands in accordance to you current fitness level. Be creative, use your body weight and proper fitness equipment, make your session an adventure.