War Against the Machines

Functional Training advocates tend to shy away from training with machines. Whether you agree with that approach or not the topic deserves a look. The following article is by John Grady, a Functional Training and Performance Enhancement Specialist living in the Netherlands. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The War Against The Machines – The Revolution will not be televised.

By John Grady

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Just like a feature film. In a way there is sort of an ongoing war in the fitness/strength and conditioning industry; an untelevised war, fitness machines versus free weights. What’s better, what's safer? It's sort of parting the industry like Moses parted the red sea. On every issue there are pros and cons. So what's my take on this?

Those who know me know where I stand on this issue. I'm a born iron-head, and I’ve been lifting weights for as long as I can remember. While not being totally hard-core, I do love the feel of steel. Machines can give you a nice pump, but from a psychological and physical standpoint they just didn’t do it for me anymore. Basically, I became bored. I needed something different. Machine work just wasn’t challenging enough me anymore. So I would have to say; for sheer overall strength and power I have to go with free weights to get results - hands down (as long as you know what you're doing). Safety is always number one in my book. And if you train responsibly (using proper form and a reasonable load) weight training is very safe. Just respect yourself and the weights you’re using and you should be fine.

As far as function is concerned: that's so multifaceted. Leading fitness manufacturers would like to lead you to believe that their seated exercise machines are functional. I’ve even seen some 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 blasphemy or what? Then I would have to ask myself is this functional? If the answer is yes, then functional for whom? What I do know is that at least 90% of all sports are played in a standing position – except rowing, kayaking and wheelchair basketball to name a few.

When you use the typical 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 (like Carlos Santana has said, 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, for people with very little training experience (fitness novice) who is new to weight training, can’t control their own body weight and doesn’t like to perform bodyweight exercises, this might be a solution. And for the bodybuilder, whose primary purpose is to load a muscle group with a freakish amount of volume to increase muscle size. Trying to so-called pump 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 no problem if that's their goal). These two groups are basically concerned about their appearance, not performance.

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 Joe Weider, but you know it's B.S.!) I had nothing but chronic injuries while trying to strength train. Performing pure bodybuilding routines (which I thought was true strength training back in the day) and play high level basketball at the same time. The two just don’t just don’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 eventually see the light.

There isn't a day that doesn't go by where I catch a client squirming in his seat (compensating) trying to push 80 to 100kg on the chest press or 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're 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 cult like), that is not founded on fact or any functional or scientific principle...just gym science. They see Arnold and Coleman doing the latest muscle max routine using particular pieces of equipment, and they no doubt think that if it worked for Arnold and Ronnie Coleman, then it will work for me. - But anyway…

Bodies are meant to move three dimensionally through space (which is what free weight training allows). Muscles contracting, balancing and stabilizing and 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 a way the body's mobility to balance or stabilize, (which is exactly what machine training does) you've got a problem. You decrease the body's ability to protect itself during those dynamic, but rehearsed movements that we all encounter during a sporting event or while performing everyday activities.

Maybe you may not realize it at that very moment, 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. For example while using the seated chest press; your transverse abdominus (part of your core musculature) which initiates all movement is basically asleep; while unnecessary loads are being placed on your wrists, shoulders and elbows, because you are forced to train in a certain movement pattern.

I'm not going to give machines a total thumbs down. They have their place in a training program... somewhere, in a rehab setting for example. Sometimes you have to try to isolate a muscle to improve its function, and then integrate later. But it seems that something has gotten lost in the way we prepare our bodies for sport/athletic movement. Somewhere between physical therapy and bodybuilding something has gotten misplaced. Ironic isn't it; the same machines physical therapists use to rehab an athlete are the very same ones that create most of the problems in the first place! I think we all have to make sure we give everything it’s proper place and know when enough is enough (e.g. too much volume, too much so-called isolation).

Like I said, maybe machines have their place in a program somewhere. But you'll never find them in any of mine. A good cable/pulley system is all I need (the Keizer functional trainer and Ground-Zero are good examples). I can’t imagine a coach or trainer telling me – with a smile on his face that their weight room injury rate is zero, is something to be proud of! - While half the team is on the injured list and their overall athletic performance sucks! 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 injuries, myself included! Just out of pure ignorance. That’s a shame, because they're so easy to avoid.

So you have my answer. Machines use them 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 one or two sets of dumbbells, and build a nice one at that, (for those interested in only aesthetics) for 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.

Train intelligently, and remember – it’s about quality, not quantity.

John Grady

Specialist in Sports Conditioning


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