Exercise Machine Efficiency

Machine Hoopla by strength coach Jamie Hale

Weight training machines are very popular in today’s commercial gyms. Many commercial gyms are becoming almost exclusively machine inhabited. This problem has made it difficult for serious trainees to find facilities to accommodate their needs. In Siff’s book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness, he describes two types of weight training machines:

1) Non functional resistance machines – These machines offer general resistance, but no sport- specific resistance.

2) Functional resistance machines – These machines provide resistance in sport-specific patterns. Non functional resistance machines are usually the type you see in gym circuit (ex: pec deck, lying leg curl, leg extension etc…).

These machines can play a supplementary role to free weight training, but they should not replace free weight use. In general, they do not offer neuromuscular and muscoskeletal benefits in comparison to free weights. These type of machines are useful in certain bodybuilding programs as well as rehab programs. They are also fine for the beginner or the less than serious trainee.

Functional resistance machines offer varying degrees of movement. They are not fixed to one specific movement pattern. Functional resistance machines can be used to simulate specific movement patterns encountered in the particular sporting activity. When used efficiently, these devices have been very successful in strength training for athletes.

The most common functional resistance machine seen in commercial gyms would be the ‘hi-lo’ pulley system. These devices allow the trainee to place the pulleys in high and low positions. Attachments are hooked onto the cable that runs through the pulley. There is no fixed point of movement. The cables move freely. This allows the user a variety of different movement patterns. It is common belief that machine training is safer than free weight training; this is not necessarily true. Many trainees who use machines exclusively suffer from injury. This is often caused by improper technique or pattern overload syndrome( range of motion syndrome). Pattern overload syndrome occurs when a specific movement pattern is performed excessively. This is a condition similar to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. You can see how this can occur with machines that lock you in the same exact movement pattern time after time.

Understanding basic biomechanics can go a long way in reducing your chances of machine induced injury. Below I have listed some tips that are useful when using machines. Machine Training -Seated leg extension can produce large forces on the knee. This machine inhibits hip action therefore increasing stress on the knee. Contrary to popular belief leg extensions are more stressful to the knee than proper squatting.

Vertical leg press machines allow the user to bend their knees until they touch the abdomen. This causes forced lumbar flexion which is can damage the lower back. Hack squat and smith machine squats are a poor substitute for the free standing squat. These devices place high shearing forces on the knee.

Pec decks usually require the trainee to begin the movement from a mechanically weak position. It is recommended that you have a partner pull the grips forward so you can begin the movement from the front of the face.

The majority of bench press machines require you to begin the exercise from chest level, which is a mechanically weak position. This position does not allow a prestretch to occur. A partner should assist the trainee in raising the bar so the movement can begin from an extended elbow position.

Prone leg curl machines often cause excessive lumbar spine extension. Pay close attention and properly stabilize your hips when performing this exercise. This can be done by contracting the abs and pressing the hips into the pad.

Hyperextension machines quiet often stress the hamstrings and the joint capsule of the knee. The user should avoid fast movements on this machine. The machine can also cause dizziness due to positioning. Individuals with abnormal blood pressure should avoid this machine.

Seated press machines require the user to begin from the bottom position. This is a biomechanically weak position. Some of these machines also suggest that the trainee begin the exercise from behind the head. This can be a problem for people with rotator cuff problems.

Calf-raise machines often cause excessive flexion of the lumbar spine. They can also cause shoulder aggravation. To avoid excessive lumbar flexion control the movement and be aware of spinal position. If the machine hurts the shoulders place e a towel over them.

Knee-up devices offer minimal benefit to the abdominals. These machines primarily work the hip flexors.

Many abdominal machines provide an anchor for the feet, which increase hip flexor involvement. To minimize hip flexor involvement, perform the movement slowly and avoid gripping with feet.

Seated spinal twist machines allow the user to flex the lumbar spine while twisting. This results in excessive force on the spinal ligaments. To avoid this problem, remain in an upright position and perform the movement slowly and with a limited range of motion.This machine is a disaster waiting to happen.

In conclusion, machines can be effective when used a supplementary movements. These devices are no a substitute for free weights. The next time you visit a gym that has hundreds of machines and minimal free weights do not be impressed. Question the staff about some basic biomechanical issues. I bet they will not have a clue what you are talking about.

Do not let these slick marketing schemes fool you into believing you are getting something you are not. If you are serious about strength and fitness look for a facility with a knowledgeable staff and effective training tools. Leave the toy factories to people that are less than serious about training.

Hale,J (2000) Optimum Physique. Jamie Hale
Siff,M. (2000) Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Mel C. Siff

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