The Myth of Weight Machines

At any big box commercial gym, you’ll see rows and rows of shiny, sometimes scary-looking weight machines. Whether cable-based or plate loaded, gyms invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on this equipment. The newer ones will even count your reps and display your rest time between sets (okay, that is pretty handy.) The truth is many weight machines are simply not very effective for most people, and can even result in injury. Read on to learn why, and discover more effective alternatives for the best use of your precious time – and even better, don’t require a gym membership!

So what’s wrong with using weight machines?

Reason #1:  With most gym weight machines, you are seated or otherwise supported by the machine. As a result, when you are working a particular muscle group, your critical stabilizer and supporting muscles aren’t activated. For example, consider the bicep curl machine vs. performing bicep curls with dumbbells while standing. When sitting on the machine, you’re not engaging any other muscles. When standing, the muscles of your hips, low back, and abdominals are all engaged and working while you perform the curls.

Reason #2:  Gym weight machines often lead to poor form. Because they must be designed to fit the largest of bodies, they often aren’t a good fit for smaller ones. Whether it’s arm reach, torso height or leg length, it’s extremely difficult to get into a truly correct position – and as a result, you end up using poor form to compensate. For example, consider a lat pulldown machine (the type with an adjustable seat and two handles). Because the handles are too wide for most people, especially women, the pulling down motion ends up focusing on the muscles of the shoulder and rotator cuff instead of the back. A better choice would be a standing pulldown move using dumbbells, where each arm is working independently, and the core stabilizer muscles are firing.

Reason #3: Certain weight machines are almost always ineffective and often dangerous. The most ineffective machines are those intended to work the abdominals, such as the seated pullover crunch or the kneeling oblique twist. Because of their design and the amount of weight most people use with them, these machines often end up putting excess strain on the muscles of the low back and the lumbar spine. The single most dangerous weight machine, in my opinion, is the seated leg extension. It’s nearly impossible to position the body correctly on this machine, and it puts an incredible amount of strain on the knee joint, tendons and ligaments.

A better alternative

You want to make the most of the time you spend working out, so the exercises you perform should be the most effective they can be. Here are some ways to get the most out of your exercise routine:

Do as many exercises as possible in a standing position. Whether you use dumbbells, a barbell, stretch cords, a medicine ball, or any other tool, when you are standing up you are engaging your core. And who doesn’t want a stronger core?

Perform multi-joint movements. Not only will you work multiple muscle groups in the same set, combination exercises will also elevate your heart rate for a bigger calorie burn. There are dozens of combinations to try – here are just a few: squat to overhead press with dumbbells or a weight plate; step up to balance on one foot with a single arm overhead press; or a deadlift plus a row with a barbell or dumbbells.

Add an element of instability. Whenever you add instability to an exercise, your core (and often other muscle groups) must engage to keep you balanced. The best tools for creating instability are the fit ball (aka Swiss ball, or stability ball), the BOSU Balance Trainer, the Step360, or just simply standing on one foot. Think of doing squats on the BOSU, pushups with feet on the fit ball, or bicep curls while balancing on one leg.

But is there ever a reason to use weight machines?

It’s important to clarify that “weight machines” do not include the various types of cable machines, which provide a myriad of options in standing or kneeling positions. These are wonderful tools and can often be used for an entire workout.

Body builders and physique competitors often focus on the appearance of very specific, isolated muscles and will use weight machines to achieve their goals.

Individuals with extreme balance issues or significantly compromised knees or hips benefit from the stability that certain seated machines offer. When closely monitored by a fitness professional, weight machines provide a great way to help these people build upper body strength.

So on your next trip to the gym, consider incorporating these moves into your workout instead of doing another circuit of weight machines. Better yet, get yourself some basic equipment, drop that expensive gym membership, and save time and money by working out at home.

Need more guidance on creating a home exercise routine? Contact me here and let’s have a conversation!

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