Clients often ask why we almost never use weight machines during our time together. The reason is that functional training is superior to machine based training, or ‘bodybuilding’, in many ways.
Bodybuilding focuses on developing muscle hypertrophy, meaning an increase in muscle mass. Traditionally, a specific muscle or set of muscles is isolated with a machine and moved against resistance until that muscle undergoes hypertrophy, or grows. Various muscles throughout the body are put through this process individually to achieve a certain look, with no thought given to linking the muscles together to mimic the movements of sport or daily activities. From a health or sport-specific perspective, this training style is flawed for several reasons:
- Safety - Many people claim that machines are safer than free weights due to safety mechanisms built in. While it is true that most machines will keep weight from falling on you, they do nothing to train you to be able to withstand and move loads with the support of your own body. They also give you a false confidence and false idea of your own strength. When put in real life situations or sport scenarios, this can be very dangerous. In addition, many machines train muscles in a seated position with bending (flexion) of the lumbar spine, which vastly increases the forces directed through the lower back, resulting in cumulative damage over time. Machines also allow you to excessively load other joints beyond what is safe over time.
- Performance - Weight machines do not replicate real life or sport scenarios. How many times in a sport or daily life have you been laying on your back and tried to push a heavy object over your chest with both hands in a single plane of motion? Not too often. In some select activities this may be useful but for most, it is not. So why do machine presses in the gym?
- Efficiency - You burn far more calories doing full body exercises than you do by isolating and exercising one muscle at a time. You can decrease your time in the gym significantly by doing functional training.
Functional training can be thought of as the training of movements instead of muscles. Functional training involves exercises that demand that you stabilize various joints in the body and spine using your nervous and muscular systems. Good functional exercises train balance, coordination, muscle engagement, and strength all at once. Using the example of the machine press, a functional substitute would be a standing one arm press with a cable or push ups. At the least, a bench press is superior to a machine press because you have to stabilize the shoulders. In both of the other exercises, you must fully engage your core muscles and glutes to do them properly.
It is true that functional training can take more time in the beginning, but a knowledgeable personal trainer can be very helpful, even if just for a few sessions to teach you the basics. I also highly encourage you to read Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by Dr. Stuart McGill, which goes into greater detail on many of the ideas presented here.
*For this blog cable machines are not considered weight machines since they do not isolate single ranges of motion.