Technology is a beautiful thing. I used to work part-time as a DJ and I remember hauling around hundreds of records and thousands of CDs. Transporting all the equipment and the music felt like powerlifting. The invention of the MP3 player has changed all that. What an amazing little machine. A tiny little device, approximately the size of a wallet or a small cell phone, is now capable of storing thousands of songs. You can have your entire music collection at your fingertips in a completely portable component. Just like Coca-Cola, the Apple company seemingly has a stronghold on the market with its own MP3 version known as the iPod. They’re everywhere. I own one and wonder how I ever lived without it. I love music and having my immensely eclectic library with me at all times is pure nirvana. It’s truly changed my life proving that I too have succumbed to the pressures of our microwave society. We all want things instantaneously. The school of sloth has taught us to be impatient.
The fact that technology has permeated nearly every facet of our lives, has taught us to become discontent when things don’t go our way. This dissatisfaction with our daily existence teaches us to change things as quickly as possible. You don’t like your car? Get a new one. You don’t like your job anymore? Quit and find a new one. Your house isn’t big enough? Buy a new one. You don’t get along with your spouse? Get divorced and find a new one. You hate the way your body looks? No problem, buy a new one. This type of thinking breeds laziness. Then laziness acts like a virus and spreads into every fiber of your being. Rather than searching for a plausible resolution, we look for the next quick fix.
Despite my occasional failure to resist the temptations of immediacy, I’m still old fashioned. I’m definitely old school when it comes to strength. Although I’d like to be instantly stronger and hit personal records at every competition, I enjoy traveling down the tortuous road of strength acquisition. I appreciate the journey and the struggle. Anything worth having in life isn’t easily achieved. If acquiring maximal strength beyond the normal limits was easy, everyone would do it. But, it’s not. This is one of the many reasons powerlifting isn’t a mainstream sport. It’s difficult. Strength training isn’t easy. It’s often uncomfortable. It makes you sore and requires recovery. If you’re not careful, you can and probably will get injured. So if you want easy, go play cards or lay on a beach somewhere. I won’t begrudge you for that. For those of you that are still with me, I will illuminate a way to improved performance.
There is no easy way out when it comes to getting stronger. Gaining strength requires hard work and takes time. Novices can make strength gains and hit personal bests in every workout. More experienced trainees cannot make similar gains. Just because training with machines may save time, do not be the fool that strolls down that path. Machines make good coat racks. They’re also useful for drying wet laundry and suit adjustments. (See figure 1 below).
If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, is credited with inventing the pulley. However, it’s also documented that a version of the pulley was used, thousands of years prior to his invention, by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they use the pulley? They used it to make lifting heavy objects easier. Pulleys allow loads to be distributed over a greater area and create a mechanical advantage. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Lift more weight with less effort. Isn’t that what we all want? Yes, but don’t believe the hype. It’s not that simple.
Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” sport. On the lifting platform we squat, bench press, and deadlift with a barbell. Accordingly, we should train the same way. Squatting on a machine is far less beneficial to squatting with free weights. Check your ego at the door. I’ve seen hundreds of people load the leg press with plates galore. Ask them to step under a loaded bar and they crumble. The same is true for bench pressing. Just because you can use four 45-pound plates on each side of the Hammer Strength Bench Press machine doesn’t mean you can bench press the same amount with a barbell. Machine prowess never equates to free weight strength. Anyone can lay down on a machine and look graceful because there’s little proprioception taking place. Kinesthetic awareness is gained when training with free weights and without mirrors. The visual feedback that a mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all strength training movements should be performed facing away from mirrors. Athletes don’t compete on a machine nor do they compete with mirrors. Sports are contested in open space. This is all the more reason to spend time lifting free weights.
Machines have few applications and offer limited value. Machines may be used to work with or around an injury. This is particularly true when an athlete does not have use of a limb. In that case, they can use the opposite limb and receive some benefit. Occasionally, I’ll use the lat pulldown machine for standing abdominal work. A low cable system can be valuable for pull throughs. Even then, I often grab a kettlebell and get similar results with high-rep swings. Cybex manufactures an Assisted Dip/Chin machine for those that are not yet strong enough to perform dips and pull-ups with their own bodyweight. This is especially useful for new trainees. Sometimes I’ll use Jump Stretch bands as a replacement which affords us more of a free weight feel. The Reverse Hyper is wonderful. Though I’ve never used one, Louie Simmons swears by the Belt Squat machine. I suppose I’ll take his word for it. Other than that, there aren’t many machines that I would choose before grabbing a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. I still consider the Glute Ham Raise and 45-Degree Back Raise as free weight movements as your body is anchored and you lift it through space without the aid of a lever or pulley.
High Intensity Training (HIT) advises the use of lots of machines. HIT programs are almost entirely based on single-set to failure, circuit training that revolves around machines. This is a mistake. No balance, coordination, or stability can be developed. Just about any moron can look at a machine and figure out how to use it. This doesn’t make that person an expert. Teaching the finer points of squatting, deadlifting, or the clean and jerk requires knowledge and skill. The ability to communicate effectively with your trainees is part of what makes someone a better coach. Most HIT coaches I know post their workouts on the wall and hope their athletes get it right. HIT proponents also advise that explosive weight training is unsafe. This is false, especially when more injuries occur on the playing field than in the weight room. Strength training with free weights more adequately prepares an athlete for the rigors of competition and actually decreases the risk of injury. The principles of HIT suggest that exercise should be intense, brief, and infrequent. Personally, I don’t know anyone successful, in any venture, that performs the fundamental principles of their pursuit infrequently. Our bodies do, in fact, need to recover from strength training sessions. However, the mere suggestion of training infrequently connotes laziness. Flopping down on a machine is easy. Pick up a free weight, challenge yourself, and watch your results increase exponentially.
There is absolutely no replacement for squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, overhead presses, and bench pressing. These five mandatory moves should be included in every trainee’s strength and conditioning program. These staple exercises should be performed with free weights. In lieu of machine rows, give bent-over barbell rows or dumbbell rows a shot. Military presses or push presses with kettlebells are great for shoulder strength. Instead of strolling down easy street and performing prone leg curls, try Romanian deadlifts or good mornings on for size. Strength training with free weights can help one acquire nine of the ten physical skills associated with genuine fitness including accuracy, balance, coordination, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, stamina, and of course strength. Moreover, this type of training recruits more muscle fibers, avails greater central nervous system stimulation, provides a greater transfer of strength, and creates a more functional parallel to both athletic and everyday moves.
Today’s gyms and training facilities are full of unnecessary items. Gyms are what society perceives they should be like . . . attractive, comfortable, and welcoming. How do those qualities equate to an atmosphere of physical achievement? I fail to see the connection. Gyms should be entirely uncomfortable, unpleasant and unwelcoming. Instead of appearing like a lounge, a support network of like-minded individuals should be present. An individual will push harder and risk more in the company of trustworthy peers. Instead of mirrors there should be motivational thoughts, inspirational quotes, record boards, and photos of those that have come before us and paved the highway of physical achievement. Since when is the achievement of anything truly valuable supposed to be easy? Worthy pursuits aren’t easy. When you enter into a training facility, you should be desperate to achieve your goal and willing to lay it on the line. I like to see desperation and fear in someone’s eyes because then I know they actually “have to” and “need to” achieve their goal. It doesn’t matter whether your pursuit is to lose bodyfat, squat 750 pounds, get closer to God, hasten your 40 time, become a better parent, be more honorable, jump higher, read better, love stronger, devote more, last longer, or rehabilitate an injury . . . no matter what the goal . . . you should be desperate to achieve it or quite frankly, it’s not worth your efforts.