Why the health club "machines" are inefficient

By Phil Kaplan

Having worked in the health club industry for near 20 years, I've seen the same scenario replay itself tens of thousands of times. Someone buys a new membership and is granted "a free session with a trainer." A questionably credentialed young man or woman proceeds to lead this person through a series of machines (a circuit) teaching them to perform movements as you would teach a trained monkey to do tricks. The trainer has mastered the art of counting backwards from 15 as the new member performs repetition after repetition. "14 more, 13 more, 12 more, ." At the end of the circuit the trainer shakes hands with the member, explains that he or she is available for $50 an hour for future sessions, and in most cases leaves the new member completely unsupervised from that point forward.

Over 20 years, lots of people have been shown, "the machines." I meet these people on a regular basis, and when they describe their routines, they demonstrate the movements simulating use of the actual machine.. "Well, Phil, first I do this one (they raise their hands overhead), then I do this one (they push out to the front) and then I do this one (they perform an imaginary pulldown from some unspecified space overhead). As they proceed through their explanations and their choreographed routine, they sincerely believe they have been working out efficiently. Interestingly, most people set appointments to meet with me because they've failed to achieve results. Here's the reality. If you're looking to improve form and function, if you're looking to have a body that continues to perform at its best, believing solely in "the machines" can be a result-stifling trap.

This is not to insinuate the health club machines are inherently bad. They aren't. Even with their potential benefit of muscle stimulation, they do not ask the body to move as the body moves in the real world. Envision a seated chest press movement where your back is firmly supported by a pad, your legs are fixed in place with your hips at a 90-degree angle of flexion, and you thrust some handles out in front of you until your arms are fully extended. Where in the real world does that movement take place? For most of us, it doesn't.

Real world movement initiates at the body's center of gravity, stimulated by contraction of the musculature of "the core." The "core" refers to the deep lying abdominal and lower back muscles that work to support the midsection, to stabilize during twisting movements, and to maintain balance as you bend, lift, reach, or throw. In real world movement the back is not supported by a pad, thus for optimal benefit exercise should involve some freedom of movement, allowing the low back muscles and abdominal muscles to develop functionally.

Performance is not limited to any particular muscle or muscle group. If I were to ask you what muscles you use when you walk across a room, your first inclination would likely be to identify the leg muscles. Someone with a bit of anatomical background might specify the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the gastrocnemius, and perhaps even the gluteus maximus. If the walk were limited to contraction of those muscles . . . it wouldn't be a walk at all! It would be more of a face first belly flop or a side tipover, neither of which I would recommend. If you weren't using your abdominal muscles and your spinal erectors to hold you upright, you'd fall flat on your face. If you weren't using the muscles of the shoulder in order to swing your arms, you wouldn't be able to maintain balance. Real world movement involves a symphony of muscle contractions. "The machines" isolate muscles. Machine movements can serve as a part of an effective routine, but certainly should not be the whole.

Why do I feel this perspective is so important to share? I've seen far too many cases of connective tissue disorders and overuse syndromes from individuals committed to years of working out on the circuit equipment. Most machines concentrate the force on a single joint or a pair of joints. By performing movements using dumbbells, medicine balls, and other forms of resistance, you spread the workload throughout your body and facilitate far greater muscle stimulation. You also find the exercise carries into every aspect of your life requiring movement, making daily tasks less of a burden. You find getting out of your car requires less effort. Lifting a bag of groceries or a child becomes simpler. Your golf swing or tennis backhand develop a sense of flow.

In summary, the machines have their place, and can certainly be integrated into a sound exercise program, but give me a pair of dumbbells, a stability ball, and some elastic tubing and I can teach anyone to achieve exceptional results at home. Be selective in who you reach out to for guidance and direction. The fitness industry is not regulated by any mandates so there are many practitioners who are limited in their knowledge of performance, of safety issues, and of exercise prescription.

You may find the following tips helpful when evaluating prescription of an exercise regimen:

If you seek out a trainer, look for certification through The American Council on Exercise (ACE), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), or the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Recognize that you don't necessarily need a trainer to take you through every workout. A qualified trainer should act as an educator and should empower you to exercise on your own if you so desire.

If an exercise routine is being designed for your specific needs, be sure to discuss any acute or chronic issues that might be aggravated by implementation of the wrong exercises.

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort in the hips, knees, shoulders, or elbows while performing specific exercises, discontinue the exercise and seek professional or medical evaluation.

Make certain during your exercise routine that you are performing movements requiring balance, movements that propel your body through space or ask you to shift your center of gravity.

Be certain to include exercises such as hip lifts or hanging leg raises to strengthen the core muscles.

Remember, a complete routine will involve both resistance training and aerobic movement.

If you are asked to perform a given movement, understand precisely what muscles are being worked and how those muscles can be best stimulated without risk.

Too much too soon is a common mistake leading to overtraining and potential injury. If you're new to exercise, or haven't exercised for some time, start out with moderate sessions both in volume and intensity.

Finally, practice counting backwards from 15 on your own. That protects you from the unqualified trainer who preaches the need for rep counting services.

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