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Friday, March 6, 2015

Strong, Lean & Powerful? Skip the Weight Machines

Free weights: a bigger bang for your buck
I had my eye on him for months before we finally spoke, his focused demeanor revealing a fierce determination to get in amazing shape.

For maybe an hour each visit, four or five times a week, I watched this 30-something guy in American Apparel t-shirts and Lululemon shorts rotate machines, gradually increasing his weight and somewhat mixing up his routine.

Aesthetically he looked good, yet his physique never evolved even after months of Herculean, consistent effort. Finally, I accosted him while he was doing lat pull-downs to correct his form.

“You work so hard, yet I don’t see much change,” I finally said. “Have you considered free weights? They’re faster, more efficient, and provide the real change I think you desire.”

I had a new client. Over the next few months we trained twice weekly, both immediately noticing

“Those machines had become a familiar comfort zone where I felt safe,” he finally confessed. “Now I feel stronger, more confident, and I’m not spending as much time at the gym. Oh, and I didn’t struggle when I helped a friend carry some heavy boxes up the stairs last weekend.”

You can imagine the smile I returned him.

Why 90% of your Gym Provides Inferior Equipment

“You’ve seen it a hundred times – the same thing I saw upon walking into my first brand-name franchise gym: roughly 5 percent taken up by free weights; 5 percent by stretching areas; 50 percent by cardio machines; 50 percent by weight machines.”

So writes Daniel Duane in a brilliant Men’s Journal article about why gyms fail most people. “Any reasonable person might conclude that cardio and weight machines are the best gear for getting fit,” he says. “They’re not.”

So why are gyms so populated with mostly inferior, ineffective equipment? Machines dramatically reduce your risk for injury (read: fewer lawsuits), give gyms a high-tech feel, dazzle with their shiny look, and promise easy results in just minutes a visit.

They also lull newbies to sign lengthy gym contracts plunk down hard-earned money for what appears to be an easy, effortless fitness transformation. As Duane says, gyms know potential members “won’t join unless everything looks easy, safe, and available.”

Why the Machine Hate?

Ultimately, weight machines present more drawbacks than benefits. They neglect an integrated, holistic approach to fitness and athleticism. Isolating muscle groups is not how we evolved into lean, muscular humans. As my mentor JJ Virgin says, we’re not bolted down to the floor, and neither should the exercise routines we perform.

“Weight machines train individual muscles in isolation, while the rest of you sits completely inert,” writes Duane. “[E]very serious strength-and-conditioning coach in America will tell you that muscle-isolation machines don’t create real-world strength for life and sport.”

The Poliquin Group notes among their other drawbacks, weight machines place extra stress on your joints, don’t optimize anabolic hormones like testosterone, and create less power development.

Check out my story to understand why that last one really resonates with me. Aesthetics aside, strength training makes you a more powerful, resilient person that translates into nearly every area of your life.

When you’re genuinely strong, you carry that confidence throughout life. You can pick up a 50-pound bag of dog food without throwing out your back and you don’t need assistance loading your overstuffed carry-on onto the overhead department.

Potential Benefits of Weight Machines

While free weights trump machines for strength, efficiency, and power, I wouldn’t dismiss them as completely useless.

Take rehabbers and those needing physical therapy. Maybe you’ve been in a car accident or had knee surgery. In those situations, machines keep your movement restricted, preventing you from moving in an incorrect plane of motion, twisting and wrenching a joint, or dropping a weight on your toe (or worse!)

My well-intended client fell into a much larger weight-machine demographic. He simply wanted to look good and had plenty of time to hit the gym. Increasing athleticism, stamina, agility, and all the other benefits weight resistance provide didn’t matter a whit to him, at least till I called him out on it.

But why settle for okay? If you put in a certain effort, you deserve optimal results, and free weights yield results weight machines just can’t provide in less time.

In the bigger picture, staying strong, powerful, and agile as we age should become the ultimate goals of fitness, not simply the immediate gratification of looking good on the beach (although free weights will also provide that).

Making Your Way into the Deep End…

“Most gyms do include a few token free weights, but think about where you’ll find them: around the edges of the room,” writes Duane. They may as well be in Siberia, so removed are free weights from the shiny, 2015-model equipment that litters most gym floors.

Worse, those “fringe” areas feel intimidating, populated by muscle dudes (usually in groups) or personal trainers.

A little tough love: get over it. Those folks could care one iota whether an inexperienced newbie visits their “territory.” Feel the fear and encroach anyway.

Several caveats before you take the plunge. Transitioning from machines to free weights can increase your injury risk, especially when you lack proper form.

That’s why I recommend working out with an experienced friend or personal trainer. If none of your friends, acquaintances, or coworkers lift heavy, consider Craigslist or to find a workout buddy. Even if you can only swing a few sessions with a personal trainer, preventing injury and learning good form become priceless.

Let’s say you’re a total machine addict. You warm up for 20 minutes on the elliptical and then spend another 45 doing machines.

You don’t need to cold turkey your habit. Instead, gradually transition from machines to free weights. Oscillate between machines and free weights, or commit to just five minutes in the free-weight section to get your feet wet.

In other words, ease into it. If you have a basic understanding of how to train even one single muscle group – say, your biceps – start there with dumbbell and body weight training. Gradually “transfer” one muscle group from machines to free weights as you become more comfortable.

If you’ve made the leap from machines to free weights, did you notice more agility, confidence, strength, or other benefits? Did the transition initially feel scary or outside your comfort zone? Share your story below or on my Facebook fan page.

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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at© 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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