Functional Exercises Vs. Machine Exercises

What is better? Body weight or machine exercises?

Today we are going to look at the difference between machine exercises and functional body weight exercises. Gyms are packed full of convenient machines that target specific muscle groups and even give you a little diagram and written instructions on how to operate it. Maybe you are familiar with Life Fitness or Hammer Strength brands? The ever popular Smith Machine is a fan favourite. Chest press, leg extensions, ab crunchers, leg press, etc. Every body part can be isolated or any movement can be re-created by a popular, easy to use machine. Make a seat adjustment, slide the pin into the weight you want to lift, and you’re off. The problem is that machine exercises are simply far inferior to functional body weight exercises. 

So what’s my issue with these things? You know that saying “don’t get me started”, well I can’t wait to get started!

First off lets look at the opposite of machine exercises and define what functional exercise is. “Functional training” is a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life. Well that sounds nice doesn’t it? 

Most people are looking to make life easier (lifting their kid), decrease pain and discomfort (get rid of that nagging shoulder pain), and get a little muscle tone in the process of shedding some weight. How do I know this? I have worked with hundreds of clients in a one-to-one capacity in Ontario, British Columbia, and New Zealand. No matter where I go this is what people want. They want to feel fit, be at a healthy weight, and to not have pain and discomfort. 

So if we want these things, what’s the best way to go about it? Well, the chances are, that if you have a gym membership you are looking for answers in a fitness centre. When one walks into a gym it is easy to identify a row of weight resistance machines. They have them set up so you can attack them one by one in a set order, defined by the gym. Maybe you will even get a Personal Trainer to show you how to move the seat around and select the weight. Fancy. 

The problem with machines is the very thing that makes them attractive to most beginners. They are supportive, and easy to use. To a customer of a gym this is extremely desirable and what people gravitate too. I can’t blame them, the gym is a very intimidating place for non-gym rats. 

When you use a machine you lose the need to utilize and use your stabilizer muscles. You don’t have to coordinate, balance, or stabilize the weight you’re lifting. This is not good. Let’s use the chest press machine for an example. Think about your daily life. How many times have you caught yourself in a seated position, with full back support needing to push an abject away from you? It might come in handy if you are trapped in a car seat after an accident, but probably not. My point is, it’s not functional in the way that’s going to help you be more stable or coordinated, nor does it mimic any usual daily movements. So why are we training our bodies this way? It doesn’t make much sense from a practical standpoint. 

Combine those factors with the notion that you can have absolute terrible posture, form, and technique while being able to push an impressive amount of weight, with very little practise. So now, we are effectively encouraging poor posture (because of your ability to push more weight than you probably should), and shutting off core muscles because of the amount of support you have, and we have ourselves a near pointless activity. With poor form and technique there are always serious questions about the muscles you’re actually using vs. the muscles your intending to use. Not good. Also, the majority of machines are made for a generic 6 foot human with some adjustments for slightly smaller and slightly bigger people. Everyone outside of this is stuck with a machine that really isn’t made for their long limbs, short torso, or otherwise unique body. 

Keeping safety in mind these machines offer limited range of motion and encourage limbs and joints to be protected at all times. This is terrible. Our joints were made to go through a full range of motion and when we train them in a smaller range of motion we are setting ourselves up for disaster when we need that full range of motion in an everyday situation or movement. For example: If you fall you need to catch yourself before you face plant you need a fully functioning set of shoulders. Your shoulders need to be strong from the moment your hands hit the ground and your arms are extended, to when they are fully bent and your chest hits the ground (but hopefully not your face). So when we train ourselves to do push movements only bending our arms to 90 degrees (which is the industry standard for some insane reason) our shoulders are weak past that range of motion. Hello, strained rotator cuff! Not fun, and not good. Oh and one last thing. You sit for the majority of the day if you’re in the majority of the population. Lets go to the gym to sit some more and call it exercise! Makes no sense people!! Machines tend to cause more mobility and structural issues our our joints and muscles than they solve – by a long shot. I can’t make the case against machines anymore than that. 

To recap; machines shut off your core muscles, don’t engage your stabilizer muscles (which give you balance, control, and support), encourage poor posture and lifting form, get you sitting for even more of your day, while training your movements in a less than ideal range of motion in a never-going-to-use-this in real life way. They also cause strains and pains due to limited range of motion and forcing you to move the way the machine wants you to move. So what are they good for then?? Not much, except the exceptions of course. If you are disabled they are a great tool to use. I have trained many disabled clients and they are fantastic to utilize for the same negative reasons you shouldn’t use them but only for someone who needs them. If you need to be stabilized or you need it to be easy then they are great. If you just want it to be easy and stable then you are wasting your time.

I will admit for some other users, machines are great. For body builders and folks who want to shred a specific muscle group they are effective. For a powerlifter these machines can offer stability while they can crush out heavy reps without “hurting” themselves. I use that term loosely. Getting a machine to stabilize for you so that all you have to do is push, or pull, is ideal for some. For the rest of us, these are far inferior exercises to let’s say, a good old fashioned push up. 

Yes the push up is a functional exercise. As described earlier, if you fall you are doing part of a push up. Push ups (or press ups as kiwis call them), when done properly, offer a full range of motion exercise for your shoulders, chest, and mid back. They involve your core muscles because unless you look like you’re doing the worm, your core ensures you are solid as a wood plank. Your legs need to stabilize you while your shoulder blades are free to move and be involved in the process. Push ups encourage good posture because your spine is in its natural “S” shape while you are working every muscle involved with spine stability during the movement. The push up literally mimics you picking yourself up off of the ground, catching yourself if you fall, or maybe pushing open a heavy door because when your back is not supported you can use your legs and core to stabilize yourself. Your definitely not sitting like you were at work all day as well. Pretty interesting right? If you factor this in to every joint, every muscle, and every movement that we perform on a daily basis hopefully you can see the value in functional training over machine training. One last note; please stay off of the Smith Machine people, that is the worst invention I have ever come across. Move the way you’re naturally meant to move, not the way a machine wants you to move. I’ll leave it at that.

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