"The human body is a machine which winds its own springs."
You’ve taken the first step and bought yourself a gym membership. Now you think to yourself, “okay, what the heck do I do with all of this equipment??” Some of the machines in there look like Medieval torture devices. It’s easy to lose yourself in the rows of fancy gadgets in there, but in reality, all you need to achieve your fitness goals is your own bodyweight and some free weights.
Regardless on your fitness goals (increase in strength, increase in size, fat loss, etc.), I recommend you avoid the weight machines at all costs. (Okay, if you REALLY want to use the cardio machines, fine. That’s a little bit different.)
- Stability- Try something for me: stand on one leg and try to balance yourself for as long as you can. Now try to balance yourself while you’re laying on a leg press machine. It is quite obvious that you do not need to create any stability for yourself when you’re in a fixed or seated position predetermined by a machine. Your smaller stabilizing muscles, which I continually talk about, turn off when you use a machine, simply because they don’t need to fire. There’s a reason why you can leg press 2-3 times what you can back squat. Our bodies only like to use muscles that are absolutely necessary in an effort to conserve energy, so it will stop firing any muscles that don’t need to fire. Those ever-important glutes that I wrote about will most likely not fire on a leg press they way they will on a squat or a lunge, just as those shoulder stabilizers won’t fire on a chest press or a lateral shoulder raise machine.
- Range of motion- No matter what the exercise, it is important to use a full range of motion for each repetition. When we are strapped into a machine, the machine chooses our range of motion for us, and rarely does it take you through the full range of those muscles in any given movement.
- Joint stress- Certain machines can place tremendous stress on your joints and connective tissues. For example, the leg extension machine stresses the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the other ligaments and tendons that hold your kneecap in place. Open chain exercises (isolations) can irritate those tissues more than closed chain (compound) exercises.
- Functionality- The word “functional” is thrown around a lot. Here, I use “functional” to relate to the transfer to our day-to-day movement patterns. How will machines or open chain exercises carry over to your ability to play sports, pick up your kids, or go run a 5k? It won’t. However, a deadlift has a direct transfer to picking up heavy furniture, and a squat has a direct transfer to standing up from your desk chair correctly. Using machines will train your body to adapt to isolating one muscle at a time, and of course we never want that! We want to train movement, not muscles!
Although fancy new machines can be enticing, I urge you to step away from the Smith machine and try a back squat (or better yet, a front squat or an overhead squat). Back off of that silly crunch machine and try some hollow rocks or weighted planks. You will save yourself from injury and ultimately build a stronger, more stable body, ready for any task you ask of it! Channel your own inner Terminator and turn your body into a machine.