In recent years, “functional training” has become the favourite child of trainers all over the world. The debate over free weights (mainly dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells) versus machines (equipment like the “pec deck” and leg press) has kind of died down, but the case for each is still greatly misunderstood. In the majority of the world’s health clubs the exercise machines aren’t going anywhere. (It feels oddly like Cyberdyne Systems may have won after all.)
No different than “boxers vs. briefs” (for the record, boxers), rather than re-hash the age-old machines vs. free weights debate, I’ll stick to the most important points below. It comes down to understanding a simple transportation metaphor.
Let’s start here: What is wrong with machines?
The biggest issue with machines is they operate in a fixed plane, meaning that much like a train on railroad tracks, there’s only one way that force can be directed, or channelled: You push or pull and the pieces move in a predetermined path.
Sounds great, right? You can’t screw up the movement and injury risk should then be low.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For starters, and for the sake of simplicity, even with all the seat height adjustments in the world, how could a 6-foot-5, 110kg man and a 50kg 5-foot woman possibly have the same limb lengths to accommodate the uniform shape and path of motion of any given piece of equipment? (And why do aeroplane manufacturers who cram us into the same-size seats not realise this!?)
Two individuals of the same height and weight will not necessarily have the same limb lengths. Ever notice the reach differences between two fighters of the same size? And that’s just arm length.
And perhaps the most damning piece: We are all different on the inside – beyond the Sesame Street “embrace-our-differences”
life lesson. Our joints are all shaped differently. The hip alone, as exercise physiologist Dean Somerset has expounded, can have myriad individual combinations of shape, not to mention that even the left and right sides of the body may be shaped differently.
So let’s think back to the train metaphor. Imagine trains of various widths, wheel sizes, and even differences in wheel size and width using the same uniform track.
While it is true that there is increased “stability” on a machine versus using a barbell or dumbbell, that can move in a theoretically infinite number of directions, this “stability” hardly decreases injury risk. It may in fact, due to individual anthropometry (limb lengths, joint shapes, etc.), increase it.
Whereas the train track metaphor is apt for exercise machines, a car metaphor may be apt for free weights: The wheels of a car will never be perfectly balanced, the road never perfectly even, and with the variable of other motorists, all more fast and more furious than the next, can prove to be utter chaos. However, if you understand the rules of the road, and have adequate control of the car, driving should be fairly safe. (Yes,
I am aware of how dangerous car travel is compared to other forms, but bear with me here.)
Many people don’t have the requisite understanding or skill – the “rules of the road,” or “driving skill” – to perform free weight movements. However, making the argument that these folks are then better off forcing their asymmetrical train of questionable proportions onto one-size-fits-all train tracks is a preposterous solution. Why not just learn to drive, especially when real life and sports are much more like driving?
There are many benefits to performing free weight movements, aside from avoiding the issues with machines mentioned above. Generally speaking, the body must draw increasingly on stabilising muscles around joints to assist free weight movements, as well as elicit greater core recruitment. These two factors alone can decrease injury risk in other areas of not only sports, but daily life as well.
The arguments are endless for whether machines and free weights can lead to the same degrees of muscular development, whether machines are “functional,” and what the impact of each is on sports performance. Like trains and their tracks, I do think machines have their place – and not just on Judgement Day.
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