Thursday, December 18, 2008

Weight Machines: Ineffective, Boring, and Dangerous

Note: This post is directed mainly at any non-CrossFit readers. I know I don't have to convince CrossFitters of any of this!

Not very long ago, I thought that strength training was strength training. It's all useful, free weights are better than machines, but machines still offer some benefit, and they're not a bad place to start for someone who is just getting started.

Wrong. Actually machines are a terrible approach, even if you're just getting started. This goes against conventional wisdom in gyms everywhere. Weight machines may increase your strength, but in weird, constrained, artificial ways, by training muscles in isolation. Somehow isolated muscle training became part of the popular culture (I'm working my biceps, triceps, lats, etc.). But that's not how we do things in real life! We use muscles in combination with each other (along with balance and coordination) to accomplish functional movements.

Typical free weight training is better because free weights (dumbells, barbells, etc.) don't fully constrain the motion like machines do. But the motion is still artificial in dumbbell curls or a bench press. Over the past few months, I've come to appreciate that more complete, functional motions are way more effective. Pick up a weight, lift it over your head, squat, pull yourself up, throw something heavy, push yourself off the ground. These are things you do in real life, and this is how you will gain real strength.

Years of artificial weight training and I saw few gains. Four months of functional movement training, and I have seen amazing gains not only in strength but in stamina, balance, coordination, and speed.

I think women are especially vulnerable to the promise of the shiny machines. Oh, I'll do the circuit training, it's easy! How many women's magazines publish article after article that promises "easy" workouts? But if you want to see gains, it shouldn't be easy! The mere fact that what you're doing at the gym is easy should be a wake up call that it's not working. And guess what, easy workouts are boring. Challenging myself more has kept me infinitely more motivated than I ever was. Don't feel guilty that you don't want to go to the gym. Change up your workout to address the motivation issue. More intense, functional training with complex movements will make you want to go to the gym because you will see gains both inside and outside of the gym.

Even just adding a few functional exercises can make a big difference. Try assisted pullups, knee pushups or incline pushups, unweighted squats, situps. If you're going to go to the trouble of working out, shouldn't you make it as effective as you can? Functional movements can be scaled for difficulty, so no one should use the excuse that they're too weak, too old, too easily injured, etc. If you're worried about it being too dangerous, keep in mind that strength training with artificial movements can be way more dangerous:

Article: The 10 Machines You Must Avoid at Your Gym

(Pictures cropped from photos at Flatirons CrossFit photo gallery.)


claudia said...

I don't use weight machines myself, and only used them for a brief time before heading to the free weights. I agree with your general ideas.

However, there is a place for these machines. I think its better for the 70+ aged men and women at my Y to do the Nautilus circuit rather than do no resistance training at all. Not everyone will want to learn free weights, much less do the sort of compound bodyweight exercises that might benefit them.

Also, when my husband broke his ankle, the seated Nautilus machines were a decent choice for him. Ditto for the many folks in wheelchairs at my Y.

Amy said...

Good point, the situation might be different for physically handicapped individuals. However, they should be especially careful to avoid machines that put pressure on places they shouldn't.

And bad strength training is definitely better than no strength training at all. I just worry that a lot of people get complacent with the machine circuit because conventional wisdom says that's fitness, that's all you need to do.

Margaret said...

My parents watched my doing burpees and pull-ups during vacation this august. I talked to them a lot about Crossfit.
They went home and signed up for the local Globo gym because it had a pool and the local Crossfit affiliate didn't. Well I'm happy their doing something. They then came and watch Sara and I do the WOD one day over Thanksgiving.
My Dad has been researching Crossfit though and recently sent me the Crossfit journal entitled What is Fitness, which I'd already read but I'm really excited that it made so much sense to him. They're both in their 70's but have always been very active so I might convert them yet!

JamesD said...

I think "Dr. Squat", Fred Hatfield, summed it up best when he said that if you're moving and you're not injuring yourself, you're doing well. It's just a question of how sub-optimally you're doing. If machines get you off the couch great. After you do that a couple months and get the exercize addiction, don't be afraid of the hand chalk and ugly, black weights.

slimsdotter said...

Hmm, lots to think about. I found your blog by following the link from your comment on YarnHarlot, curious to see where you were from. I'm from Wyoming, and went to "the other side of Denver" to hear Stephanie, too. Anyway, I was thinking about getting a weight machine but have been reading your blogs and the CrossFit site you linked, and it makes sense.