For most of us, time is precious. Not everyone has countless hours to spend in the gym nor should they need to. It’s important to make the most of the time we have there. Working smarter not harder.
Machines in Commercial Gyms
If you’ve spent some time in busy commercial gyms, I’m sure you have seen plenty of machines there. Some you might be intimidated by and not be 100% sure what they are for.
Machines in the gym became popular in the ’80s and ’90s as they were a way of getting people into the gym. People could mindlessly move from one machine to another working each muscle group in isolation without the need for the gym to employ too many trainers to facilitate.
They may have seemed like a “safer” option than using free weights as there is less technique and coaching needed to learn how to use them. The movement is a fixed one, meaning that after your initial introduction to them you can generally be left to your own devices.
However, counter-intuitively machines can cause more injuries than they prevent in the long run. This is due to the limited nature of their fixed movements. They train the main targeted muscle group however don’t train stability of the surrounding muscles to the same degree as free weights. They can also force the body to move in an unnatural way.
Pros and Cons of Using Machines in the Gym
1. They may cause injury
Your body is a complex intricate system. You should train movements rather than working individual components in isolation.
“Functional” training may have become a buzz word within the fitness industry recently but the goal of your workout, (unless you are planning to be a bodybuilder or a physique competitor) is to train your body to perform basic fundamental movement patterns. These should be performed with strength, stability and through a full, natural range of motion.
While strength training machines may target certain muscle groups, their fixed nature fails to work the necessary synergists and stabilising muscles.
We shouldn’t ignore our bodies natural biomechanics to build a robust and functionally strong body. For example, this would mean replacing those smith machine squats with goblet squats or barbell box squats and replace the seated chest press with a flat dumbbell bench press.
2. They burn less calories
If your goal is fat loss as well as strength, then the use of compound lifts are far superior to that of machines where you work one muscle group at a time. Examples of some compound lifts include squats, barbell deadlifts, dumbbell forward lunges, ring pull-ups or the barbell overhead press. These exercises use many muscle groups to contract and stabilise in unison, therefore the overall metabolic cost is higher which in turn the body will use more energy and burn more calories.
So hit those deadlifts and lunges before you sit on the leg extension machine if you’re looking to get lean.
3. They are not time efficient
Your gym time may be limited due to a busy work schedule and family commitments. Therefore, it’s best to hit as many muscle groups in as few moves as possible. Put the body under enough duress to change without spending hours hopping from one machine to another hitting each muscle group one at a time.
4. They don’t offer the same challenge on the musculature of the core
Your “core” muscles are needed for stabilising your lumbar spine and pelvis whilst doing free weight exercises, especially as you move up in weight. However, if using machines, your core is not activated to the same extent.
They are not all bad, however, and some machines are more useful than others. Some of the pros include:
1. Great for targeting weak areas
If you have noticed that you a muscle which is weak through injury, then it may help to isolate these muscles. This should not replace your compound/full body movements but add them to your list of “accessory” exercises.
2. Great for conditioning
While strength training machines don’t burn calories to the same extent as free weights. Machines can be used for conditioning to great effect. Some of the best for this purpose include everyone’s favourite, the Airdyne, which is excellent for short intervals with a serious calorie expenditure and very low injury risk as is the >Watt bike. Others which work to great effect if proper technique is adhered to is the rower and SkiErg to name a few.
In summary, if your goal is building a strong, stable body while aiding fat loss then free weights, compound exercises and bodyweight training definitely trump strength training machines.
Machines can still be a useful addition to your gym routine however, best used during conditioning intervals for maximum efficiency.
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