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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 gym machines.

  • 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 path machines.
  • 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 machines.

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 bench 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 others.

  • 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, fixed path 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 Functional Weakness
  • 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 teach you.

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.


doctorAs with any nutrition or exercise program, always review them with your doctor to ensure that they don't interact with or are contraindicated by any medications or medical issues you may have. If you haven't trained for a while, start out slow and go easy. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, blood sugar problems, or any heart issues, you shouldn't do this program as it is very strenuous.
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