Whether you should train using an exercise machine, such as a leg press, or use free weights or bodyweight is an ongoing debate within the trainer /coaching world. if you’re not a trainer or a coach, you may not care.
But you should.
You’ll make better choices, reduce your risk of injury, and improve your outcome when you know more about the good and not so good things of exercise machines.
The Rise of The Machine
The birth of what we now know as resistance exercise machines was in the 1948 spearheaded by Arthur Jones and his Nautilus machine.
Jones’ “cam” system within the Nautilus machines delivered more uniform resistance throughout an arc of motion. He believed this provided a better ‘workout” over free weights since with a free weight the muscle effort varied as you moved. He also thought it would be safer since you could isolate muscles more easily and there was less risk of dropping a weight on your head or foot for example.
Following the Nautilus was Universal with the first “multi-station” gym that you often see in hotel fitness rooms.
Prior to the Nautilus and Universal devices, gyms were filled with “trainers”, free weights and, as a result, a small membership size. But, the machines changed all of that. Now, a gym owner no longer needed a trainer. Consumers could just hop on a machine, do their exercises, and be done. Gyms suddenly became huge facilities with equally huge numbers of members. Gym owners counted on members signing up and then not using their membership.
Since the Nautilus, there have a been a number of technical improvements in the resistance exercise machine industry but little has been written for consumers about how to decide if they should use a machine or not.
The Pros of Resistance Exercise Machines
Ease of use. Exercise machines make movements easier by isolating the body part or region. For example, a leg press machine removes the requirement of managing a barbell on your shoulders and a seated bicep curl doesn’t require you to control your trunk and hips. It’s also easier to adjust the load on the fly than a free weight.
Stability. Because resistance machines tend to isolate muscles by placing you, in most cases, in a seated position, your spinal stability is enhanced by the support of the device. For example, in a seated chest press machine, the support of the seat back and the counter pressure created by the movement (so when you push your hands out, your back pushes into the seat) helps stabilize the spine.
No weights can fall on you. That’s probably obvious but it’s still a valid point. Most articles written about resistance machines versus free weights will promote machines as being safer. That’s not entirely the case as I explain later.
Increased Load. Muscles don’t know what tool you’re using. Muscles respond to load and/or speed over a certain range of motion. Machines allow you to lift more weight than you would be able to lift with a free weight because of the extra stability provided by the machine. For example, you might be able to leg press 300 lbs but with a barbell, you’re likely to find 300 lbs to be a pipe dream. Yes, they are different movements so that’s part of the issue but the barbell requires you to balance the load which makes a squat much more difficult to perform.
Train alone. Again, this is mostly a safety issue if compared to free weights at higher loads. About the last thing you want to do is go for a bench press personal record alone. You could end up with a very serious injury if your hand slips, you fatigue too fast, or you just drop the weight mid-way.
The Cons of Machines
Too much stability. Machines can make you overly confident because of the stability. You push or lift too much weight because you can. Also, not having to control your body as much means less need for spinal muscles to do their job. it may work okay at first but over time, your body will need to be exposed to more varied loads and stability requirements.
One dimensional. Real world motion is 3D and although no weight lifting drill can exactly duplicate real world activities or sports (whereas some drills can replicate real world activities like a side hop), free weights does provide with one benefit that few people know about: training of the muscle-fascia system. The fascia is a connective tissue that envelopes and connects muscle to other muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bone. In order for the fascia to remain healthy and strong, it must be exposed to variations in loads, speeds, angles, and movements.
Inconvenient. Machines require you to go to a gym and then there’s the problem of how crowded the gym might be and waiting for the machine to be free.
Forced movements. Machines constrain your movement to a specific path and usually that means you’re unable to move the way the body was designed. That’s not a huge problem until you start increasing the load and then you may find more issues with joint injuries.
Forced training. When the gym is busy, people are forced to complete sets on each machine before leaving the device. A more effective strategy is to do one exercise for one set, then move on to the next exercise. This is called circuit training. However, with machines, people tend to stick to one exercise, rest, repeat. This strategy puts less strain on the cardiovascular system.
Lower energy demand. Exercises with compound movements with resistance bands and free weights cause a high emphasis on multiple body parts, large range of motion and variations in loads and speeds, forcing you to expend a lot of energy so you get a lot done in short amount of time. Machines don’t require as much energy expenditure since you’re moving so much less mass.
What to Do?
I prefer free weights over machines although I use performance bands the most. One of the reasons we use performance bands is that you can develop strength and endurance and master movements without the risk that comes with free weights. And you can train just about anywhere.
I rarely suggest machines, although for some clients, it’s a good place to start if they learn how to use them properly.