31 Jul The 5 Major Problems with Exercise Machines
For most of the many years I trained in the gym, I had used the countless exercise machines that were there (in addition to dumbbells and barbells). Now, I know better.
Here’s a list of the 5 major flaws of exercise machines I have observed and why I’ll never train on machines again (unless I have to).
- Ignores true mobility and stability. Training on machines offers limited range of motion and even more limited stability throughout the exercise. Let’s look at the mobility topic first. Compare doing a free weight bench press versus a machine press. Which exercise will give you more range of motion? The free moving exercise, of course. One of our goals we have in our training is to have symmetrical mobility in our joints. By limiting our true range of motion, as we do in a machine exercise, is to potentially limit our joint mobility. The range is fixed and using machines and doesn’t allow for our natural range of motion. Now, for the stability argument. Picture this. Now, you are sitting in the same chest press machine. Compare this to a classic push up. You have 2 extremes in stability here. What do I mean ‘stability?’ Look at how many other muscles are working in the push up. Look at how many trunk stabilizer muscles are working with this exercise versus the seated chest press, where the machine does all of the stabilization for you. You can see that the push up is more of a total body exercise due to the use of the core muscles, the legs and glutes, and the shoulder girdle muscles. You could say the same thing about many kettlebell, bodyweight, free weight, or TRX suspension exercises. For optimal mobility and stability, there is no doubt that free motion exercise is superior to machines.
- Doesn’t allow you to train in multiple planes of motion. Again, take a look at the seated chest press, in which you are working only in one plane of motion. Compare that to the kettlebell ‘Turkish get-up.’ In the get up, you are working in multiple planes of motion, not just one. Why is this important? First, this is a more functional type of movement, meaning that this is a movement that would be more likely to carry over into sports or every day function to improve your performance. Also, you are recruiting many different muscles in the ‘Turkish get up’ movement pattern as you are learning each position in the exercise. You are literally learning how to move better. The same cannot be said for the single plane chest press. This exercise does nothing to teach you how to move better and compared to multi plane, functional movement of the kettlebell ‘Turkish get up.’
- Trains the same isolated movement repeatedly. Again, your range of motion is fixed, your plane of motion is fixed. You are simply isolating a muscle group and an exercise. There is no real motor learning parocess going on here. Anyone can sit down in a chest press machine and be instantly taught how to press. There is no skill, no total body motor program sequence. The biggest limitation with the isolated movement, such as a machine exercise, is the lack of carryover into function, as I’ll discuss further below.
- Does not train your musculoskeletal system the most natural way. The natural motion of a lift is using all your muscles in a three dimensional, natural movement. As mentioned above, using multi planes and multiple joints. As discussed, most machines limit you to one plane of movement, which is not a natural movement pattern. Think of any sport. When you run, jump, throw, or catch this is all done in ‘natural,’ three dimensional movements. What would be the functional carryover from such a restrictive single plane movement, as performed on an exercise machine?
- Does not improve true functional capacity. And finally, it all comes down to function, doesn’t it? As I just stated about the carryover to functional activities. If there is no carryover, it’s not very valuable in your training approach. Functional training is, by definition, a progression of exercises that teaches how to handle bodyweight in all planes of motion. The key here is “all planes of motion.” This was my opening argument against exercise machines and their greatest flaw. The key purpose of ‘free exercises’ is to train the individual how to handle their body in different positions and to create a challenging environment for the respected stabilizing muscle groups. This is what will truly impacts functional performance, not the isolated, single plane, restrictive movement as performed in most exercise machines. A kettlebell exercise is a perfect example of multi plane, multi joint exercise that translates into true functional improvement for many sports, daily activities, and fitness goals.
These are the 5 flaws with exercise machines and a strong case for limiting their use to maximize your performance. Free weight exercises do so much more to “teach” you how to move better and, without question, perform better.