I’ve been lifting weights for as long as I can remember – Machines as well as free weights; and I believe you have as well, at one time or another. While not being totally hard-core, I do love the feel of iron. Looking back, I can remember the tremendous pump I received while using variable resistance machines, but it wasn’t long before I had my fill. You could say I was physically and psychologically burnt out. Basically I became bored. I needed something different. Machine work wasn’t challenging enough for me anymore. So from a creative standpoint, I would have to go with free weights.
As far as function is concerned-that’s very diverse. Leading fitness manufacturers would like you to believe that their seated exercise machines are functional. I’ve even seen marketing material from some top equipment manufacturers depicting professional athletes training on their so-called “new line” using the seated leg extension, chest press, etc. Is that functional? If the answer is yes, then functional for whom? We all know that the activity will dictate the means. And what you also know is that at least 90% of all sports are played in a standing position – exceptions being rowing, kayaking and wheelchair basketball to name a few.
When you use the typical variable resistance machines found in most gyms or “life-style centers” you put your body in a position that doesn’t even closely resemble how your body functions or operates. Your body doesn’t like isolation – period.(quoting Carlos Santana – It’s like fitting your body with a cheap suit. It doesn’t fit very well.) It’s difficult to find a machine that perfectly fits over 700 muscles and 206 bones!
But for certain populations they probably are useful in very limited doses – I repeat very limited doses. For example: a person who is new to weight training, can’t control their own body-weight, and doesn’t like to perform body weight exercises. This would be a temporary solution. For the bodybuilder, whose primary purpose is to load a muscle group with a freakish amount of weight and volume to increase muscle size. Trying to pump-up and “isolate” a muscle group – which we all know is impossible and isn’t a testament of true strength – but don’t try to tell them that! Useless strength is what it is ( but that’s no porblem if your goal is to build useless strength!). But the name of the game in bodybuilding is primarily aesthetics (appearance), not performance. If you are going for real strength. Sheer overall strength and power, free weights win – hands down.
I still laugh to this day, because I was also sold on the same B.S. when I first started weight training. Hell, all I had for reference were all those muscle magazines. No offence to Joe Weider – but for years he pulled the wool over all our eyes! Laughing all the way to the bank! I had nothing but chronic injuries while strength training, performing pure bodybuilding routines (which I thought was true strength training back in the day) and play high level basketball. The two just didn’t mix. Show muscle is not the same as performance muscle. But since I’ve become more involved with athletic performance I’ve managed to se the light.
Let’s talk about safety for a moment. First of all, everything has a certain danger element to it – certain risk factors; weight training is not excluded. I can imagine that some people have the idea that training with free weights is dangerous, when they hear stories about some idiot being all alone in weight room (no spotter in sight) trying to bench 225, but is unsuccessful. Later to he has that 225 siiting on his chest, or even worse, his throat! All alone, gasping for air. If I was a novice, and heard that, I would also be scared as hell to lift free weights! That’s a scary scenario. Accidents can and will happen, but a lot of them can be prevented. Most of the time accidents stem from sheer carelessness. If you train responsibly ( i.e. proper form, having enough common sense to know when to use a spotter, and a reasonable load) weight training is very safe. Use common sense, respect yourself and the weights the weights that you use and you should be fine.
Now the other side of the coin. Due to their fixed position and guided movement, machine training is supposedly safer. But In the long run who are they safe for? I catch clients all the time squirming in their seats (compensating) trying to push 70 to 90kg on the chest press or with a behind the neck press on the smith machine, and so on. I literally see the beginning of the end, these people just don’t know what they are doing to themselves! And talking reason into them is like talking to a…a…smith machine! We all know the types, with the unshakable, dogmatic mindset (almost cultlike), that’s not founded on any fact, principle or scientific data – just gym science. They’ve seen Ronnie Coleman in a magazine doing the latest (*recycled) muscle max workout using particular pieces of equipment, and they no doubt think that if it worked for Ronnie, then it will work for me ( *There’s actually nothing new in bodybuilding over the last 30 or so years. Only the faces and the drugs have changed). But anyway…
Bodies are meant to move three dimensionally through space (which is what free weight training allows). Muscles contracting, balancing, and stabilizing in all three planes of motion (frontal, sagittal and transverse). The interplay of all these factors is what determines and creates human movement. Lack of this interplay is what causes injury. When you take away your body’s mobility – the ability to stabilize and balance (which is what machine training does) you’ve got a problem. You decrease your body’s ability to protect itself during those dynamic, rehearsed and also unrehearsed movements that we all encounter during a sporting event or while performing everyday activities. After looking at machine training in this light; it really doesn’t seem all that safe anymore.
And you won’t realise it at that very moment; it’s a slow process. But eventually it will come back to haunt you. Machine training causes movement pattern overload. Placing unnecessary stress on your joints, tendons and ligaments; creating back, shoulder and knee injuries of all sorts (I should know -trust me!). For example: while using the seated chest press, your transverse abdominus (part of your core musculature) which initiates all movement is basically asleep. Unnecessary loads are being placed on your wrists, shoulders and elbows, because you are forcing yourself to train in a certain movement pattern – Remember, your body doesn’t like isolation.
Despite all of this, I’m not going to give machines a total thumbs down. They have their place in a training program- somewhere. I’ve seen them in rehab settings for example; I’ve read that you sometimes have work a muscle in a isolated fashion to improve it’s function, and then integrate later. But it seems that something has gotten lost in the way we prepare our bodies for sport/athletic movement. Something has gotten misplaced between physical therapy and bodybuilding. Ironic isn’t it that the same machines (most, not all) physical therapists use to rehab an athlete are the very same ones that create most of the problems in the first place! Then again, you can’t blame the machine; it’s just a machine, man made in fact. If anyones the blame, it’s the therapist, the athletic trainer! Another analogy is this: Guns don’t kill people, people do. It’s a little extreme, but the message is the same.
I think we all have to make sure that we give everything it’s proper place and know when to say enough is enough (e.g. too much volume, too much so-called isolation, etc).
Like I said, maybe machines have their place in a program somewhere; but you’ll never find them in any of mine (At least not in the traditional sense). A good cable/pulley system is all I need (the Keiser Functional Trainer and Ground Zero are good examples). I can’t imagine any coach or trainer telling me – with a smile on his face, that their weight room injury rate is zero, while half of the team is on the injured list and their overall athletic performance sucks! That’s nothing to be proud of!
I’m not an advocate of the sport safety for weight room safety trade-off, sorry. I can’t count how many bodybuilders and athletes that have fallen to machine related abuse/injuries; myself included! Just out of pure ignorance. That’s a shame, because they’re so easy to avoid.
So you have my answer. Use machines sparingly and at your own risk. Free weights – you can’t beat the carryover (e.g. balance and stabilization components), which is needed in every sport. Then there’s also the creativity factor-the possibilities are endless. You can basically train your entire body with two sets of dumbbells and build a nice one at that (for those interested in only aesthetics) for only a fraction of the cost of one of those multi-systems. You know the ones with the chest press/leg extension/ lat-pulldown/ leg-curl/Etc, Etc, etc. Name one piece of equipment where you can do so much with so little.
Free weights are definitely better.
John Grady is the owner of Training-for-Athletes.com. A company based in Europe (the Netherlands) that specializes in Sport-specific training and athletic development. John is certified by ACE and the ISSA and has more than 15 years of training experience. He has trained clients from all walks of life and regularly trains and advises many amateur and professional athletes in the areas of athletic development.
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