When you head to the gym for a workout, in what area, and with what equipment do you spend the most time? The area featuring gleaming chrome machines? The dumbbell rack? Perhaps you're intimidated and altogether lost on the gym floor and head straight to a group fitness class. When I'm not teaching and have a few extra minutes to train outside of a class, I bypass nearly all of the fancy strength training machines for good ol' fashion dumbbells. I also prefer resistance bands, kettlebells, medicine balls and jump ropes. Beyond that, some of my favorite workouts don't use equipment at all. They leverage your own body weight.
It's not that machines are useless. In fact, they offer a good starting point for the novice exerciser because they are usually self-explanatory, don't require racking and stacking of weights, can be used without the need for a workout partner, and are generally safe for those lacking stability or with functional limitations.
But machines can't compete with free weights when it comes to training functional movement. For the purposes of this article, strength-training machines do not include cable machines (such as the standing cable machine), which are in their own category and do allow similar freedom of movement and core engagement as free weights. Free weights are defined as weights, such as dumbbells and barbells, that are not attached to another apparatus or structural device, and that don't limit range of motion.
"Strength machines are generally regarded as inferior to free weights for improving core stability and neuromuscular efficiency (proper movement patterns) because they offer artificial support versus one's core musculature providing the stability," according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Furthermore, NASM reports that machines don't accommodate movements that incorporate combined upper and lower body exercises, and machines can't be adjusted to fit all body types, therefore reducing their efficacy and potentially creating greater stress to the body. And because most machines primarily work in one plane of motion, they limit strength development through all three planes.
Eventually, the goal of exercisers should be to graduate from machines to free weights to allow the body to become stronger through multijoint, total body exercises that replicate real-life movements.
Aside from the concerns listed above, my bottom-line reason for avoiding machines is that most require the user to sit. Um, don't we sit enough already?! Why would we sit to exercise? How many of you are sitting as you read this right now? And how much time have you spent sitting during the last hour, three hours, six hours, nine hours? If the majority of your waking hours are spent sitting (which, by the way, decreases your life span), why on earth would you sit during the short amount of time you devote to movement?
I like how Rich Froning puts it. By the way, Froning won his fourth consecutive title as the Fittest Man on Earth at the CrossFit Games this past July.
"Pick things up and put them down. Run. Carry stuff. It's what our bodies were made to do, not sit on a machine and do single joint movements."
Froning goes on to say that using machines and performing single joint movements are, however, better than "sitting and doing nothing," and he's right. Any movement is better than none at all. But my question is, if you're going to go to the trouble of exercising, don't you want it to be as effective and functional as possible, enabling you to increase range of motion and enhance total body strength?
If the jury is still out for you on machines versus free weights, here's a list of pros and cons for each type of equipment, courtesy of NASM.
MACHINES -- PROS:
MACHINES -- CONS:
FREE WEIGHTS -- PROS:
FREE WEIGHTS -- CONS:
If the pros of strength machines still outweigh the cons for you, I challenge you this week to add one free weight exercise into your routine. Let me know which you incorporate. Try squats or lunges while holding dumbbells at your side. Perform 8-12 repetitions if the weight is fairly heavy, and 12-20 reps if you're starting with light weight.
Have you ever heard the quote, "You're known by the company you keep"? My mom said that to me regularly throughout my youth. It's a take on the verse found in Proverbs, "Walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble."
She cautioned me to choose my friends carefully, knowing that they would have significant influence over me, and I over them. To avoid the "wrong crowd," I kept busy with church activities, school work and athletic pursuits, and was expected to abide by strict house rules and a rigid curfew. "Nothing good happens after midnight," Mom would say.
While I balked at such conservative parenting as a teen (but now model it as a parent!!), the idea that we reflect those with whom we spend time rings as true for me today as it did then.
I spend a fair amount of time on social media, and it struck me one day while perusing Facebook that a significant portion of my FB friends share my passion for fitness. Through their posts, I've been enlightened, inspired, educated, and even motivated to stop procrastinating and get up from my computer right then and there to go work out. Beyond that virtual community, my work in health clubs allows me to be surrounded by fitness enthusiasts nearly every day.
While not all of my friends share a love of health and wellness, the majority of the company I keep does--and it has made all the difference. I'm absolutely certain that the fitness community to which I belong has helped propel my career and kept me on track when I questioned what the heck I was doing, or if my efforts had value.
By nature, humans gravitate toward others like themselves. We have an innate desire to be a part of a group, a pack, a unit. So it makes sense that I would align myself with likeminded fitness folks. For those who desire to lose weight, get healthy and seek wellness, whom you align with will make or break your success.
There are many examples to prove this, but one in particular was a woman--we'll call her Beth--I coached a few years ago. Beth was eating right, losing weight and on the right track, yet she came to my office distraught. I asked her what was wrong, and the bottom line was this: her best friend, who was also overweight, felt threatened by Beth's success. The friend had nearly stopped speaking to Beth. Beyond that, Beth's larger circle of friends didn't embrace a healthy lifestyle either despite her invitations to the gym, so she was constantly pressured to eat poorly and skip exercising.
Beth knew she was doing the right thing for her health, but felt unsupported and lonely, and was contemplating abandoning her program. Here's the deal folks: it's easier for others to pull you down than it is for you to pull them up.
I'm a loyal sort, so I wasn't going to tell Beth to just ditch her friends, but I did tell her that it was time to make some new ones. If she was going to be successful at reaching her fitness goals, she had to surround herself with those who shared her mindset, and would provide encouragement, accountability and positivity. She did just that by increasing her time in the club, attending classes and taking advantage of social opportunities with them. This growth was at times a painful process for Beth, but her desire for self-improvement, for metamorphosis into her best self, meant shedding the old and embracing the new.
If you're someone who's working toward a goal for better health, yet your best buddies are always tempting you to try the latest fast food concoction, the new buffet on the corner, a doughnut when they see the 'Hot & Now' sign, or to ditch working out for happy hour, it's time to make some decisions. Will you allow that company to thwart your efforts to live a healthier life? Or will you seek a new circle of fitness friends who will help get you to your goal?
Q. Can I eat whatever I want as long as I exercise?
A. The majority of daily caloric expenditure is not in the time spent exercising but in the total energy expenditure during 24 hours. Approximately 3,500 calories equals one pound of body fat, so to lose one to two pounds per week, one must maintain an average caloric deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories per day. However, a person may burn 250 calories from exercise and spend the rest of the day participating in sedentary activities. Calories that are not used for energy production are stored as fat. Therefore, a person can eat 100 calories a day more than what their body needs to maintain, and in the course of 35 days, theoretically they will gain a pound of fat. Even a mere 10 extra calories a day over daily maintenance needs could add up to a pound of weight gain over 350 days!
Q. What are the risks of starvation (very low calorie) diets?
A. Most nutrition experts do not recommend an energy intake any lower than 1,200 calories, and even that may be too low for an active or very large person.
Very low calorie diets (VLCD) should be followed only under the supervision of a medical professional. A VLCD is a doctor-supervised diet that typically uses commercially prepared formulas to promote rapid weight loss in patients who are obese. These formulas, usually liquid shakes or bars, replace all food intake for several weeks or months. VLCD formulas need to contain appropriate levels of vitamins and micronutrients to ensure that patients meet their nutritional requirements. People on a VLCD consume about 800 calories per day or less.
When used under proper medical supervision, VLCDs may produce significant short-term weight loss in patients who are moderately to extremely obese. VLCDs should be part of a comprehensive weight-loss treatment program that includes behavior therapy, nutrition counseling and physical activity. Additionally, long-term maintenance of weight loss with VLCDs is poor and no better than other forms of obesity treatment.
Some of the risks of following an overly restrictive diet include:
[On a personal note, clients I've worked with whose "diet doctors" prescribed a VLCD for them had poor long-term results. They were cranky, hungry and lethargic. While they did lose weight, it was determined that much of what they lost was lean mass--a most unfortunate outcome since muscle is your body's fat-burning engine. When your body lacks sufficient nourishment, it becomes catabolic. That's a scientific term for the state your body enters when it's starved and begins to break down muscle tissue. You must eat to fuel optimal results!]
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I am not a registered dietitian, nor a medical professional. My blog is a representation of my views and experiences, which are not intended as medical advice. While I am a certified personal trainer, descriptions of things I eat and exercises I perform may not be suitable for everyone. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your current routine.