As we discussed in our previous installment, any big box gym is going to draw the majority of interest with its assortment of cardio machines. For the more initiated, the next thing that catches the eye is the assortment of strength machines.
Strength machines offer what cardio machines lack; the ability to tighten and tone and increase the strength of your muscles. Strength training offers several benefits and I have become a bigger and bigger fan of strengthening my body over the years. This is not to say that I have foregone my preference for a light, lean, feminine physique. Quite the contrary is true. With the rapid increase in fitness devotees, Facebook has born witness to the multitude of women who have discovered the joy of being strong and in strength training. Most of us have at least one FB friend who is constantly posting videos of themselves beating their previous power lifting PRs. And anyone who’s on Facebook is inundated with a whole gallery of clichés to dispel the myths and embrace the “new” movement of fitness. Simple expressions like: Strong is the new Sexy; Nothing tastes as good as fit feels.; Train like a beast; look like a beauty; and dozens of others express the joy of being physically strong and the discovery that weights don’t necessarily create bulk.
The reality is that cardio burns calories but so do muscles. For that matter, any activity burns calories. Strong muscles burn more calories than weak muscles while fat burns no calories. Strong muscles define and give a flattering shape to both the male and the female physique. And, true for both men and women but perhaps more important for women, strong muscles create tension on the bones. Tension on the bones helps to create and retain bone density. Bone density equates to bone strength. One of the biggest fears of my older clients is of falling and fracturing a bone. Hips are the biggest concern but any broken bone is frightening when we reach a certain age. Several years ago, my stepmom fell while gardening. The resulting wrist fracture healed eventually but she has permanently lost significant range of motion in that wrist. Had she been stronger and more fit, she might not have fallen in the first place but she almost certainly would have recovered and healed faster and easier.
Strength machines obviously play into the equation of strength training. There is a plethora to choose from which can get confusing for many people. There are numerous machines for your legs and nearly as many for your arms. Back row machines hit various angles of your back as the numerous chest press machines attack the chest. There are machines to work your abs and machines to work your shoulders. The benefits of machines are simple and remarkably similar to cardio machines. If positioned properly in most machines, it is relatively easy to do the exercises correctly. For those who take direction well, it is easy to learn how to use the machines and, if you have decent body awareness, most have a sticker affixed which shows the proper position as well as which muscles are being worked making them a self-help guru’s best friend.
Strength machines were my first foray into strength training. I didn’t really understand what I was doing with them. A friend showed me how to use three or four machines and I did them faithfully for several weeks. I got a bit stronger. It was nice. It was also boring as I slogged first through 30 minutes on the treadmill and then repeated the exact same sequence on the exact same selectorized machines three times. I also found the machines to often be too large for my petite frame as the adjustable features didn’t always meet my needs. Which machines do I prefer…well, honestly, today, only a relative few strike my fancy. Why? As a trainer, I find them limiting on many levels. You can only work one, maybe two muscle groups on the average machine. And, often, they can hold up the flow of a group when training multiple clients. My own creativity feels stunted with machines as they lock us into a set pattern and location. As a business owner, I find them hugely expensive. They are large and bulky, taking up way too much valuable square footage. Once placed, you don’t even want to consider moving them. Most importantly, I find there are other ways to strengthen my muscles.
The best part of most strength machines is their relative safety. Strength machines tend to lock you into a certain form and only work the muscles shown on the little sticker affixed to the machine making them semi-foolproof. That said, I have seen some scary injuries on machines. They tend to neglect the stabilizing muscles. With a few exceptions, they neglect the core. Most often, they are also bilateral, meaning both sides of the body work together as one, not allowing each side to work independently. This means your dominant side will almost always bear the largest portion of the load. The second big problem is that the weight on traditional selectorized machines, the ones most people are familiar with, is limited to the stack on the machine. For the beginner and most women, this isn’t a concern, but, for the very strong, this can be limiting.
The assortment of weight machines has increase dramatically in recent years with developers seeking to overcome some of the downsides inherent in most traditional strength machines. Old school body building machines found most often in the the heavy weight rooms of most gyms feature the ability to add a lot more weight as the resistance comes from plates loaded onto the machine. Many also offer independent unilateral function—for example, each arm is independent in an isolateral chest press machine and must do its own work. There is no forced or locked in connection of right and left.
New-ish to the scene are the FreeMotion style machines. Once found primarily in more upscale gyms, they are cropping up more and more frequently in the big chain gyms. These are cable machines that offer a wide range of motion, requiring the user to rely on and work the stabilizing muscles as well as the dominant ones which I find these preferable for my clients with good awareness and control. However, they still have all of the other limitations of traditional machines with a bit more risk involved when used by beginners.
I realize that it may sound like I’m hating on strength machines, but I actually do like many of the available options enough that I would and do give up that valuable square footage in my gym for them. I like that they are pretty safe for my newer clients. I like that, for certain exercises, they facilitate using a heavier load. Squats on a smith machine can be used for safety as well as rehabbing an injury, building and/or rebuilding foundational strength, or perfecting form. An isolateral row helped me break past my strength limitations while eliminating an annoying, weight limiting nerve ping in my elbow. So, yes, while not the end all, be all, to strength training, strength machines serve an important role in anyone’s training routine when used appropriately and purposefully.