My Rage Against the Machine(s)

Some things just go together.  Peanut butter & jelly. Coffee & Mornings. LeBron James & Miami (haha, hi haters). But I’m about to break up a couple that was doomed from the start: big bulky machines & fitness facilities are NOT compatible according to my eHarmony.

I’m talking about the usual culprits: the leg press, the leg extension, the chest press, etc.    Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer in lifting weights.  Not only is it the best for building strength, but nothing compares when you’re looking for body composition changes and all around awesomeness.  It is one of the few activities in the gym that can be manipulated to achieve just about any goal you can think of — yes, you can even reap cardiovascular benefits.  But what is the one thing these machines have in common?  Just about all of them require you to sit down to use them.

Now…I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the reason most of you go to the gym is to get in shape. So, if you’ve been sitting a lot, and that hasn’t given you the body of your dreams, doesn’t it seem a bit counterintuitive to sit down when you’re “working out”?  Just because you changed your environment doesn’t mean it magically fixes the problem: sitting is sitting no matter where you are my friends.  We already know that excess sitting tends to lead to poor posture, weak muscles, and bad flexibility.  But instead of combating that with movement, the seated machine approach perpetuates an already bad situation.  Its like being lactose intolerant and having an all-dairy diet. Fail.

via Google Image

But one of the biggest issues I’ve run into when training has been people’s hesitance about their form.  They always say “well I don’t want to do the exercises wrong, so I just stay on the machines because they’re safer”.  Safer than what, exactly?

I get it.  For the most part, these things are very user friendly.  They have idiot-proof ikea-like diagrams on them, have you strapped in so you can’t fall out, and isolate a specific muscle so you know exactly what you’re working.

via Google Image

The only problem is these machines were originally designed for two purposes: bodybuilding and rehabilitation.  They became popular thanks to Arnold and his pecs in the 80’s, and ever since then, they’ve just been taking up space and making me cranky.  Their purpose was to isolate a particular muscle for aesthetic purposes, or to combat atrophy from injury – not to turn you into a greek god.

Here’s a knowledge bomb: these machines are actually almost guaranteed to aggravate movement patterns, enforce imbalances & cause more issues down the line than the bodyweight & free motion movements will.  Not only do we have the whole “you’re still sitting and therefore losing” situation, but there’s also the issue of muscle isolation.

Dynamic stabilization (aka having control of your body while in motion) is a crucial component of baseline functionality.  Isolating a muscle one at a time takes out the need for those small stabilizers to do any work, and they become too weak to support activity – the chink in the armor, so to speak.  By isolating a particular muscle and ONLY working that muscle, you ignore the connective tissue/ligaments/tendons and all the muscles surrounding it and instead only hypertrophy the muscle fibers in that plane of motion.  This doesn’t sound terrible, but eventually you create an imbalance – the stabilizers that are supposed to assist a muscle are too weak and as a compensation, get taken over by something else.  This is known as synergistic dominance, and a classic example occurs when the hamstrings take over as a major hip extensor to compensate for a weak gluteus maximus.  Why is this a problem?  It is like replacing your entire starting line up with your bench players.  It might get the job done, but it doesn’t have the staying power as the original.

So then you have this issue occurring all over: excess strength in the chest vs upper back, stronger quads vs hamstrings, weak energy transfer through the trunk.  Pretty soon, every movement you make is essentially like wrapping a thin rubber band around a tree stump and trying to pull it out of the ground.  The larger muscle just creates more stress on the surrounding structures because it hasn’t been trained as a unit.  Then, the minute you go to perform a functional task (like throwing a ball or picking something up) you run the risk of tearing at the musculotendinous junction.  Here’s an example using the calf/achilles complex as to where these injuries usually happen.  The red inflammation should give you a hint.

via Google Image

Does this always happen? No – it is an extreme example, but you can imagine what happens when athletes train this way exclusively and then attempt explosive movements. See ya at the orthopedic.  This is also the issue behind many randomly tweaked backs, pulled groins, and other injuries we see with the general population. So my question is, why train pieces of your body when you can train the whole system?  A) it is more time efficient and B) the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.  When you train the body as a unit, it performs as a unit – and the more connected it is, the stronger you become.

via Google Image

Unfortunately there are a million exercises to choose from and the “technique police” are always watching – but in Part 2 I’ll share some tips for keeping it safe, balanced and obviously awesome.  Get excited.


About sten06

Master's in Kinesiology: Strength & Conditioning BSed in Exercise physiology -NSCA CSCS -NASM CPT, PES -Varsity Lacrosse Coach Saving the world one workout at a time ;)

Posted on January 1, 2012, in Fitness, Strength & Conditioning, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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