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.)