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.
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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.