The Plague of the Gym

It takes up a massive amount of space and costs thousands of dollars. It looks inviting and most newcomers fall victim, wondering why they are not seeing continuous results after a few weeks of dedication and consistency. This plague can be seen in most commercial gyms. The plague goes by many names: Pec Deck, Seated Chest Press, Leverage ISO Row, Smith Machine, Thigh Adductor, Lying Leg Curl, Dip Machine, etc.

Yes, the exercise machine -- the worst revolution ever popularized in the exercise field.

Exercise machines were designed to train each body part, paying little attention to developing efficient, safe movement patterns and instead moving resistance through a guided, limited pathway. This is counterproductive, however, because the human body is meant to move through its environment free of restriction. This is especially problematic if you have long limbs or are very petite, as the machine handles or platform may not fit your frame. In fact, throughout all recorded history, humans have moved through our environments in a multi-jointed fashion. Most people don’t naturally do just a bicep curl to pick something up; they also instinctively hinge their hips, bend their knees, flex the ankles, rotate the wrist, and extend the arms.

Why are exercise machines so popular?

They provide two major bonuses for big box gyms. First, resources don’t need to be spent training front desk employees how to operate the machines. Yet, newcomers to the gym who want to train hard, without using machines must learn to use free weights. This requires hiring staff with professional education, which is ultimately time consuming, not widely available, and high-cost. Minimum wage employees can easily show the average Jane/Joe how to get an “effective”, “whole-body” workout by taking a walking tour, showing them several machines. The second bonus exercise machines provide to big box gyms is increasing traffic capacity and maximizing profits. Since machine-based circuit workouts usually require around 30 minutes, more people can get in and out of the gym quickly. This is why big box gyms are designed to have 80-90% of the floor covered with machines while free weights are left to the shadows.

The body functions as a whole system. If it works that way, it should also be trained that way. So do yourself a favor and use free weights.

The strength gained by isolated movements with exercise machines will not completely transfer to big movements like sprinting, jumping, and pushing (basically anything athletic). In contrast, properly performed free weight exercises can easily be adapted to individuals’ limb length, neuromuscular patterns, and strength and mobility levels. Free weight exercises also allow for all muscles can to be trained evenly and with fewer exercises. Individuals must make small positional adjustments when performing these exercises. This coordination, balance, and control is required in every free weight exercise and absent when using exercise machines.

There are a few exceptions to training with free weights over machines though.

If someone is unable to perform a squat because their body weight is too high, I would move them to a leg press machine. Or, when recovering from surgery or injury, clients might safely spend a couple of weeks on the lat pulldown or the chest press machines. However, my goal is always to get clients to free weights as soon as possible for the greatest outcomes.   


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