I have been asked a few times “Should I use exercise machines?” If you want to train your body to move through life (pun intended) the answer is “No way, Jose!” There is a better alternative to using the seated machines: body weight exercises!
I am not talking about becoming a bodybuilder or power lifter, which is what most people think of when talking about "non-machine" exercising. You don’t have to be a muscle-head to do non-machine exercises. In fact, you do them all the time as you move throughout the course of your day. You perform moves such as:
Body weight exercises force you to stabilize your body as it moves through space. When you perform lunges, for example, you must stabilize your core as you move. When you perform the dipping bird, as another example, your core must be stable in order to maintain proper alignment. Movement comes from stabilization. This is physics. Even performing biceps curls with dumbbells while standing requires an engaged core and stable legs.
Machines help you with stabilization. You can sit back and let the machine help you remain stable while you move your limbs. You do not move this way in real life. You are not doing your core any favors by sitting on a machine.
Muscles Work Together
There are very few natural movements that use a single set of muscles. Standing on your tip toes to look over a fence may be an example, but even then, you are using additional muscles for support. A 12-ounce curl may be another example. Maybe.
As you are going through your day, many muscles need to work together. For example, when you are walking, your quads, your hamstrings and your glutes have to work together to bend and extend your knees and your hips. In addition, your core has to keep you upright. Even your arms get involved in walking with their natural swing. Body weight exercises like squats and deadlifts train your muscles to work together.
Machines target a small group of muscles, for example the leg curl targets the hamstrings (back of thigh), the leg extension targets your quads (front of thigh). When you sit on a machine, the machine removes the ability of your muscles to work together. It also does the stability work for you. Your body does not work this way!
Multiple Planes of Motion
As you move through life (yes, again), you typically move in multiple planes of motion: forward and backward, side to side, twisting and a combination of these. Think about putting groceries away or getting in and out of your car: you bend, you twist, you move sideways. These are complex movements. Machines don't allow you to do this. They move in only one direction.
Body weight exercises can be augmented with dumbbells, exercise tubing/bands and medicine balls. These tools allow an infinite number of strength movements, limited by only your imagination or the imagination of your personal trainer.
Exceptions to my “No Machines” Philosophy
There are some exceptions to my "no exercise machine" workouts. The cable machine is one of them for the following reasons:
It allows you to work in multiple planes of motion with added resistance.
It can help you do full-body exercises that include using your limbs while working on core stability.
You provide the stability when performing exercises with a cable machine.
Exercises like the low-to-high cable chop, the high-to-low cable chop and the body weight squat with a row are good examples of full-body exercises that use a cable machine. For home workouts, cable machines can be simulated with exercise bands attached at different levels.
When Are Machines Appropriate?
There are reasons to use machines, but they are few:
If you do not have the mobility, strength and/or balance to perform body weight exercises, machines are a good way to start to get stronger. Wean yourself off the machines as you get stronger for all the above reasons.
If you just feel safer in a machine and have an aversion to body weight exercises, the machines are better than nothing. Although I hope after reading this article you will consider trying some body weight exercises.
Specific machines may also be used for injury rehab.
How Do I Learn Body Weight Exercises?
If you are new to exercising, or you have always used machines, body weight exercises may be foreign to you. The best way to learn appropriate exercises and good form is to ask a trainer. If you belong to a gym, find a trainer and ask specifically for help with body weight exercises. Don’t be intimidated. That is why they are there and they LOVE to help beginners (believe me)!!
If you have questions about how to start a body weight fitness program, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.