"The gym industry is predicated on the idea of using machines because it is extremely cost-effective for them to train their staff on the use of those machines. In other words, it's cost-prohibitive for a gym to hire a strength coach to teach everybody in the gym…how to do squats, presses, and deadlifts." Mark Rippetoe on NPR, January 2 2009
Are weight machines better exercise than free-weight and bodyweight exercise? No. Are they safer? No. Are you surprised? Keep reading….
If you've visited a big gym lately, you'll notice that you have more choice of exercise machinery than ever before. You can isolate a given muscle in virtually any plane, you can adjust your seat without thinking about it, you can pop a pin to increase or decrease the weight.
But are these things actually helping you? No. In fact, they could be making the problem worse.
We're a seated culture. We hunch for 8-12 hours every day. We lean over laptops, slouch on the phone, recline in front of the television. When it comes to sitting down, we've gotten pretty good at it. We could give lessons.
There are a ton of postural problems that derive directly from our 'seated society' – bad backs, early-onset osteoporosis and arthritis, poor muscular coordination, muscle tightness, and – while we're at it – fatness. Chairs make you fat. Yes, they do.
Add to this problem that we now have less time to exercise than we once did, and we've got the deck stacked against us.
When you're exercising, it's more critical than ever to use your body the way it was meant to move. It's absolutely essential to re-learn the correct way to sit down and stand up (squat,) bend over and pick something up (deadlift,) and lift something overhead (press.) Your body simply doesn't know how to DO these things anymore. Would your grandfather have hurt his back lifting the Purolator package onto your desk? Would grandma hesitate to climb up on a high stool to reach the 30lbs bag of flour in the pantry? I really, really doubt it. Yet these movements do pose real risk to the desk-sitter.
Sitting in place, locking your body into a seated position, and moving one joint on one plane is only making the problem worse. Your joints were made to stabilize themselves while moving against resistance. Want a good example of what happens to a joint that's stabilized in one plane of motion while free to move in another? Look at Neck-Stretching Rings. Yes, neck vertebrae are joints, too. The wearer of the Stretching Rings is free to move her head left and right, but the resistance is taken off the joint by the rings. Take them off, and she can't hold her head up anymore. Ah, beauty; no price is too large!
Why do gyms have a ton of machinery and few free weights? Forget the usual 'safety' excuse – it's a red herring. Frankly, it's very cheap to employ unskilled labour and instruct them on the use of machinery. It's quite another to bring a highly-paid strength coach into the gym for 16 hours per day and have them teach hundreds of people how to squat properly. How much difference is there? Triple the cost. Now, charge for 'Personal Training' on the same machines, by the same instructor, and you've got a large return on a small investment.
The system is against you. You've got to find your own way. Learn to do basic movements – they're exercises, but also fundamental necessities for your life – from a professional strength coach. Do them well. Do them with challenging weight, or do them fast, or mix them with other movements. Test yourself. Let your Trainer test you. Compare yourself to your previous score. NOW you're on to something.
One more thing: if you're looking to lose weight or just 'get fit,' you can't beat free-weight exercise. Not only will you burn more calories, but maintain your musculature (fat-burning furnace) and stimulate the right hormones to burn fat.
Look at our facilities: lots of open space, lots of free weights, lots of room to move. Few machines. This confuses a lot of people, and even turns some beginners off. However, once you know the difference you can make using your own body, your progress will astound you.
Want to hear the entire Rippetoe interview? Click here.