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Sweat and Steel - OSHIIT
Joint Terminator - Rise and Fall of the Machines
Machine vs. Free Weights
by jeff denson
I'm often accused of being anti-machinic, because I don't like gym machines and
rarely use them. Let me clarify. I don't hate all machines; Some machines are
good. Some of my best friends are machines. I'm in love with my massage chair.
On the other hand, the alarm
clock and I… Well, let's just say our relationship is on the rocks. But back
to the topic at hand: gym machines.
There are some good gym machines and there are some terrible ones. But first, let's distinguish between the different types of
- Fixed Path - The movement path is fixed forcing your body's joints to move
at angles dictated by the machine. Examples include the Smith Machine, Bench
Press Machine, Leg Extension. When we refer to machines in this article,
this is really what we are talking about.
- Floating Path - The movement path is NOT fixed. Examples include most
cable machines as these allow the body and joint angles to move somewhat
independently of the machine. While technically machines, these allow your
joints to move freer, and therefore, are not in the same category as fixed
- Semi-Fixed Path - Some machines allow some movement outside of the
defined path, such as the Leg Press in that the knees can move from
side to side during the exercise. This means that there is some leeway and the joint angles aren't precisely
determined by the machine.
- No Path - Machines that don't have a moving path, such as a chin up bar.
Some could argue these aren't technically machines, but let's just add them
to the discussion anyway.
The gym machines primarily discussed in this
article are the machines that force your joints to
move in a fixed path, such as shoulder press and bench press
Disadvantages of Fixed Path Machines
- Destroys joints (i.e. The Joint Terminator) - This is one of
those no-brainers that once you explain it, it becomes inherently obvious to
even the most casual observer. If the machine forces your joints into
certain angles, and these angles aren't the exact angles that your joints
are designed to move in, then the joint has to work against itself. And that can't
be good. Take the overhead press for example. If you do a shoulder press
with dumbbells, as the dumbbells rise and fall they can move left,
right, forward, back, the wrists turn, etc. to accommodate the needs of the shoulder joint
allowing it to move in a path that's natural for it. On a shoulder press
machine, however, the shoulder joint is forced to operate at the angles
dictated by the machine. I don't care how much you adjust it, the chances of
the angles dictated by the machine being exactly correct for your shoulders
are slim and none. And even
if you get it correct for one shoulder, since most people aren't perfectly
symmetrical, the other shoulder will likely be wrong. I
think anyone can understand how forcing your shoulders through unnatural
angles with heavy weights would be harmful to your shoulder joints over time.
If you don't believe that allowing your joints to move through their natural
paths is important, ask any bicyclist how much it hurts to ride any distance
on pedals that don't have float (the ability for the foot to rotate
allowing the knee angles to adjust to natural positions).
It doesn't take long forcing your knees to operate at angles that aren't
natural for them before they begin to hurt.
- Why are you still reading? Wasn't destroying your joints enough?
You need more? Well okay, continue if you must…
- Slower strength gains - A
2008 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research reported that
free weight users had a 58% better increase in strength and an almost 200%
better improvement in balance compared to machine users. And to boot,
according to the study,
the free weight users experienced less joint pain than machine users.
- Develops non-functional strength - By having the machine balance
and stabilize the weight, your muscles and nervous system don't have to.
Therefore, they never become very good at this. Sure you can get big muscles
and push a lot of weight, but if you can't stabilize the weight or don't
have the coordination and balance to control the weight then this
strength is fairly useless outside of the gym. TRUE STORY: I had a
client who prior to me trained almost exclusively on machines. He could
press 150 pounds on the machine, but on a free weight bench he
couldn't even bench press the empty bar (44 pounds). This is because as he
pressed up, the bar was all over the place. He had no ability to stabilize
and control the bar. He had developed strength, but it was useless off
the bench press machine.
- Develops muscle imbalances - Another no-brainer once you
understand the principle. Most people have muscle imbalances. Generally
speaking, a right-handed person's right arm is stronger than their left. So,
let's say your right arm is stronger than your left arm and you do
bench presses on a machine with a fixed bar that doesn't allow one side of
the bar to move higher than the other. Since your right arm is stronger, it
does most of the work. The machine doesn't care which arm does the most work, the
bar still moves forward evenly. And since your right arm is doing more work,
it gets stronger faster than your left and your muscle imbalance just gets
worse over time. Compare this to a free weight bench press where both arms
must work equally to prevent the bar from tilting to one side. Since it is
weaker, the left arm has to work harder compared to the right arm which
finds the task fairly easy. Therefore the left will grow faster than the
right until eventually they are essentially equal.
Advantages of Fixed Path Machines
Even the worst machines can serve a useful purpose for the right
person at the right time. And of course some machines are better (or worse) than
- Rehab - Rehab is generally the best (and for the most part the
only good reason) to use fixed path machines. If you are recovering from an
injury and need to limit joint mobility or isolate a muscle group during an exercise,
machines can be useful for this. For example, while recovering from a bike
accident some time back, it was nice to be able to do some leg exercises
without putting pressure on my back while it healed.
- Better muscle isolation - If for some bizarre reason you want to
work a group of muscles without working the muscles they are
designed to work in concert with, then machines can be useful for this.
About the only reason to do this though is if you are prepping for Mr.
Olympia and are trying to correct a few muscle imbalances for aesthetic
reasons. Very few typical gym goers ever reach this point. In fact, very few
ever get past the "building a solid muscle base phase," which isolation
exercises do little to help you achieve. Build your base first, then tweak
it up (or as I say, "bake your cake, then add the icing").
- Safety - Machines are generally considered safer in that you are
less likely to fall over or drop weights on yourself. On the other hand, not
developing the ability to stand and balance a weight in a coordinated manner
makes you more likely to injure yourself outside of the gym. When's the last
time you needed to pick up a child that was anchored to a fixed path? Hmm,
probably never. The very thing that is cited as "safety" is the very thing
that robs you of developing the ability to perform tasks safely outside of
the gym. Think about that a minute and ask yourself, "What exactly are my
weight lifting goals? To be able to push a weight along a fixed path, or to
lift and move real world objects?" See
- Easier to use - It's easier to learn how to put a pin in a weight
block and just press, than it is to learn what the proper bar path is, how
to move your hips, learning to lift with the core muscles, etc. Okay, it's
not that simple. There are still points to learn about using the machines,
such as how to properly adjust the settings in order to minimize the damage
done by them.
- Clothes hanger - It's easier to hang your clothes on a home-gym
machine than it is to hang them on barbells and dumbbells.
What about the other types of machines?
With great freedom comes great responsibility.
In general, the freer the path, the better. Dumbbells offer the freest path,
followed by cables, and then barbells (barbells prevent the distance between
your hands from changing during the movement). Semi-fixed path machines have the
same issues as fixed-path machines, just to a lesser degree.
Like I said, the freer the better, however, with great freedom comes great
responsibility. You must exercise proper safety and actually know (and have the
discipline to follow) the correct way to do the exercise when using free
weights. Yes, it takes a little more effort than just stuffing pins in a weight
block, but the benefits are worth it. So do some research or get someone to
Obviously, some machines are worse than other. IMHO, fixed path machine
squats and knee extensions are the two worst. I've had several clients tell me
they couldn't do squats because squats made their knees hurt. The problem was,
they had been doing squats on a machine. Once I moved them to free weight
squats, not only did they develop the ability to squat more weight, they
reported that their knees actually felt better over time. Note: Squats in
general get an unfair reputation for hurting knees. The problem is, what most
people do and call a squat is NOT A PROPER SQUAT and will definitely cause knee
pain over time.
Knee extensions just seem to hurt everyone. And besides, other than kicking someone
while you are seated, what functional use is an isolated leg extension?
Should beginners use machines?
Many trainers advocate using machines for their beginner clients.
Supposedly because they are easier to learn (for whom, the trainee or the
trainer?) and because a beginner's joints are weak and need the extra
stabilization provided by the machine. IMHO, a beginner, while they are still
lifting light weights, should
start with free weights (or even just bodyweight exercises) to strengthen
their joints, improve their balance and coordination, and learn proper technique.
Machines do none of these things for you. That way, when they become able to
lift heavier weights, they are ready for them. About the worst thing you can do is develop a 200-pound
machine-assisted bench press and then switch to free weights. You won't have the
stabilizer muscles needed to control the weight, your joints won't be able
handle any angle other than what the machine did, your muscles are likely to be
unbalanced, and this is all just a recipe for disaster. Learn to do it right
from the beginning.