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Machines vs Free Weights
I am often asked, what is the best machine for me?, what is the best machine for this or that body part?. The answer that I always give is none. With the exception of a few specialized pieces of functional equipment, machines in your gym or home are designed to fit the mass population. So we go to exercise and are forced to contort ourselves into a machine that forces us to move in a specific pattern. The unfortunate fact is these patterns are almost always single joint movements (bicep curl). The problem with single joint movements is life involves multiple parts of the body functioning together. Any time isolation exercises are performed the joint and surrounding tissues are exposed to high stresses and loads. These stresses cause injurious forces to the tissues exposing the exerciser to joint and soft tissue damage.
Sadly some of the most loved machines actually don't work. I will list just a few of the most common ones, the first being the seated inner/outer thigh machine. What is not understood is the inner and outer thigh musculature are primarily stabilizers, and stabilizers need to be weight bearing to contract effectively, sitting to exercise them actually makes them weaker and does nothing for toning and shaping. Turn on the TV and you will see ad after ad for abdominal machines. Much research has been done and machines will make your abdominal muscles work, but the price is high. Abdominal machines cause very high stresses on the spine which will cause damage to the disks. No machine can ever make the core contract properly because as I have previously stated machines isolate and the abdominal wall like the hips was designed to stabilize and that is hard to do laying down. On of the most dangerous machines in the gym is the back extension. The spine has very little ability to move on it's own, it is influenced strongly by the hips and abs. The spine musculature consists of stabilizers that serve to protect the disks, and the extensors of the lower torso. Just like the abdominal machines performing a hyperextension on a machine or bench can cause up to 1000lbs of compressive force on the spine, there are better and safer exercises.
A rare commodity in health clubs today is floor space, and that is just what is needed for the best and most efficient types of exercise. In our next article I will go into detail how to exercise without expensive machines, decrease the risk of injury, and most importantly have a more effective and efficient workout. We go to exercise and are forced to contort ourselves into a machine that forces us to move in a specific pattern. Machines do not allow us the freedom to balance or to simply engage our 'core' muscles.
What if I said that all you need to exercise efficiently, effectively and safely is a stability ball, some light free weights and a resistance band. The amazing part is that all this will cost you under $100 dollars. With these three things we can mimic and even improve upon any gym exercise with the added ability to activate more muscles with each exercise. Consider this, a chest press on a machine or bench uses roughly 8 muscles of mostly the chest, shoulder and arm. A chest press lying on a ball activates every muscle in the body, stimulates balance throughout the body, core control and stabilization of the shoulder and trunk musculature. Life and sports are not performed sitting down, why exercise sitting down. Try performing your exercises standing, initially on both feet with the knees bent, then progress to one foot or stand on a foam mat, anything to make the body work harder. While standing on one leg you can train almost any body part in a much more functional manner than a machine will allow. The exercises you can perform are limitless and if you start to get board simply integrate in the ball to increase and challenge balance and rotational control.
At this point we must touch on the difference between rubber bands and free weights. Both are excellent mediums for resistance exercise that you must control in efficient and natural patterns. Bands allow you to mimic cable machines but if you have trained with bands before you know that the greater the movement the tighter the bands become. This means that the muscles work much harder at the end of the movement then at the beginning. Free weights stay consistent throughout the movements you perform with them, but they are gravity dependent. There are simply some exercises that can not be performed with free weights. Both bands and free weights are safe, effective and allow the user freedom of movement. Stabilizers must fire at all times, balance increases and the stresses on the joints are decreased because a machine is not dictating how you must move.
The bottom line is simple. Most commercially produced gym equipment forces us to exercise in set patterns that require only single joint movements. This causes increased strain on the tissues surrounding the joint and on the joint it's self. Life is not a single joint movement. It requires a symphony of balance, coordination, strength and endurance. Unfortunately none of those can be achieved on a machine. As a society we have become sedentary, we sit too much. Common sense dictates that we should exercise to counteract and correct the faulty postural patterns that we live in. The more muscles that we can activate, contract, at one time the greater the benefit from the exercise which means less work with more benefit. The bottom line is simply called functional exercise.
Bryan Fass,BA, ATCL, CSCS, NREMT-P
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