Dark side of strength training machines

Walk into any gym in the US and you will see the bulk of strength training space dedicated to one things – machines. For most people a workout usually consists of 30 – 45 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical machine followed by 3 sets of 10 reps on a machine circuit (or vice versa). The problem is that this approach will not produce consistent results.

As a fitness professional for over a decade I have realized that the advice that spawned that “normal” workout is driven more by money than by the results it produces. Few people realize that the fitness industry is just like any other industry – it exists to make money, not to help you get results. And just like any other industry, it promotes those that pump the most money into it. In this case, the machine companies are by far one of the biggest contributors and therefore get a lot of promotion.

To understand why machines have become so popular you need to go into the history of the fitness industry. At one time there were no machines being used by those who worked out, only bodyweight and free weight exercises. In fact, the original “Muscle Beach” in Venice was known more for the acrobatic skills of those that trained there than the cartoonish physique freak show that it is known for now.

As bodybuilding became more popular (especially thanks to that Austrian guy named Arnold) training became less about physical prowess and skill and more about things like muscle symmetry and size. As such, bodybuilders began to develop techniques to help them achieve these new goals. One of these techniques was the use of machines to isolate certain muscle groups from the rest of the body.

As bodybuilding magazines began to become more popular people began to equate bodybuilding training with all other types of training. They did not realize that bodybuilding uses specific things, like machines, that do not hold the same value for those training for athletic, fat loss or general fitness purposes.

Around this same time came the personal trainer boom. Personal training is so popular today that it is hard to imagine a time when it did not exist but the truth is that it is a fairly recent development in the fitness scene. Because bodybuilding tactics had pervaded every facet of fitness training the personal training industry began to teach its new recruits those same philosophies.

The last tragic coincidence came with the popularity of commercial gyms. At one time gyms were all privately owned and they each had its own culture. New members could ask old school members for advice about exercise technique and programs and get a helping hand. With the advent of the modern commercial gym that culture got lost. Now new members either invest in personal training (often with a trainer who just got certified a few weeks prior and knows little more than the client) or they are left to wander the gym floor with no direction or help.

This situation was perfect for machines – now new members are sold on the “safety” and “convenience” of machines and told to start on them since they are virtually fool proof. Almost anyone can adjust a seat, sit down and pump out some reps. Even those that invest in personal training are still put on machines since they require no coaching skill (seriously, why are people paying to have someone stand there and count  their reps on a machine?).

This history lesson is the real reason that machines are so popular. The problem is that they are actually a terrible option for anyone but a competitive bodybuilder. What you are about to learn is the truth that the machine makers do not want you know…

The problem with machines is twofold. First, the muscle isolation they provide is actually detrimental to the human body. Our bodies are made to act as a unit. In the real world every movement we make requires a coordinated effort from the entire body in order to function as efficiently as possible.

This means that muscle isolation goes against the way our bodies are intended to create movement and teach it bad habits. For example, in real life we need to be able to brace our core and create movement around that stable platform. Sitting on a machine creates and artificial platform and takes the core out of the equation. This does nothing to help teach our bodies how to safely create movement.

I call this Frankenstein’s monster traineing – you are building up your arms, your legs, your back and your abs separate from each other and “piecing” them together. The result is people who are strong on the machines but still have low back soreness and do not know how to do something as simple as picking a box up off the ground without straining something.

Your gym time should make your everyday activities easier and safer, not simply burn some calories. Bodyweight and free weight exercises will teach your body these essential coordination skills, strengthen the core in a functional manner and have a much better transfer to your everyday and sport skills.

The other problem is a bit more sinister. Machines actually increase the chance of repetitive stress joint injuries. When you use machines they lock you into a pre-set range of motion that often times is not biomechanically correct. Machines also balance the weight for you, taking the stabilizers that your body relies on in the real world out of the equation. In other words, machines force your joints to move in a completely unnatural way.

When your body is forced to move in this unnatural manner it wears the joints down a little bit with each rep. Because machines force your body to go through the exact same motion with every rep of every set the trauma to the joints builds up a little bit every time you work out. Over months of this exact same trauma being inflicted your joints start to wear down and become damaged.

The result is worn down and sore joints. I’ve worked with countless people who had nondescript neck, shoulder and knee pain that cleared up within a few weeks of avoiding machines. Unfortunately, the money driven fitness industry does not care about this fact, it only cares about lining its pockets with your money.

The truth is that traditional machines have practically no place in a fitness routine. They do nothing to help improve your functional strength and they wear your joints down in an unnatural manner. There is no getting around these two facts.

In fact, the machine makers see the writing on the wall as more and more fitness professionals become aware of and sound the alarm about the dangers of machines. In recent years there has been a shift to machines that mimic free weight movements and allow for more natural and three dimensional movements. Of course, the obvious question is why we don’t just use free weights instead but then the machine makers would have nothing to sell and gym owners would not have anything to steer unsuspecting new members towards.

The truth is that there has been nothing invented in the last several decades that can outdo bodyweight and free weight exercises. Remember that marketing and hype drive the popularity of machines, not the truth behind the effect they actually have on the human body. Learn to control and master your bodyweight first ad then simply use free weights to add load to those same movements and exercises. The results will be a body that looks as great as it performs and feels.

-James Wilson-


1 Comment

Filed under Fat Loss, Injury Rehab/ Prevention, Sports Training

One response to “Dark side of strength training machines

  1. I have to add a little bit to your history. In the 1960’s many collegiate athletic programs became convinced that they had to add weight training to their athletes’ training regimens, but there were very few people with any formal preparation for coaching strength training, and the individual sports coaches were just clueless. The solution was to use machines, the first ones being multi-station pieces developed by Marcy’s and Universal. They became popular because you could basically only do one thing at each station, and none of the supervising coaches got any smarter using them. The Nautilus line that came out in 1970 was the first brand marketed largely to bodybuilders, but also had a good enough sales pitch to appeal to universities. Fortunately we are now back to where every Division 1 football program has free weights with the exception of Penn State.
    Otherwise your article is right on.
    Bob Takano

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