Do you want to be free?
Then why sit there on a fixed weight-stack machine?
The last time I walked into a particular local fitness establishment, I was shocked at the number of new machines on the floor. All the gadgetry was supposed to be the latest and greatest strength and endurance training equipment. It’s amazing that companies continue to develop and sell the fancy machines that isolate the pectoral muscles, adductors, abductors and on and on. And of course, people buy those machines, so the companies keep making them – the circle of “life”.
I’m going to tell you that exercise bands and weight stack machines (a.k.a., nautilus or universal machines) with pulleys, levers, and cams aren’t nearly as effective as free weights (those round, donut-shaped things) when it comes to working out. I have an image in my mind from fitness magazines and 80’s aerobics classes of people doing resistance band activities such as bicep curls and lunge steps, using the band as the form of resistance. How did this translate into a way to build lean muscle mass and look fit? Reality is that resistance training done with bands has three main problems in comparison to using free weights:
- The resistance doesn’t become maximal until the band is fully stretched, and that isn’t until the end-range of motion. So most of the banded movement is essentially done with very little resistance.
- The banded movement does not load every bit of musculature in the body and force the use of core muscles for stabilization, as would any movement with a barbell or dumbbells.
- Bands don’t allow for what is called “eccentric training”. This is the part of any movement that goes with gravity. The down part of my squat, for instance, is the eccentric part of the squat. When using a band, there is very little eccentric movement because the band does most of the work. (Interestingly, most of the increase in strength results from eccentric work.)
I’m not saying that resistance bands don’t have a place in a training program. They do have some benefits such as helping to isolate specific muscles using movements that can’t be done with a heavier load. We can also use a band to help prevent injury and to rehabilitate injuries. Since bands don’t require full body loading, we can make sure that we’re isolating one muscle group, which, in some cases, can be appropriate
Fixed weight stack machines are also inferior to free weights for several reasons:
- Just as bands do, most weight stack machines isolate specific muscles, which can be good, but most likely the movement patterns don’t reflect what we do in real life, so the training isn’t really functional. A good example is the “pec deck” machine where the movement is done from a seated position, and the arms move in and out in front of the body against resistance. This movement doesn’t really look like something I would do in a sport or anywhere else in life, for that matter (unless you can fly).
- Weight stack machines are fixed machines, unlike free weights that force us to balance and use our core to stabilize the barbell or dumbbell. A fixed weight stack machine does not require standing, balancing and handling a load that requires the use of multiple muscle groups at once.
- A weight machine was originally designed to create different resistances at different points in the range of motion, but since the stack is fixed, we have to slow down or speed up at different points to make sure that we are getting the full benefit of the pattern designed in each pulley and lever system.
Again, weight machines can be useful for some programming. We can isolate specific muscles for injury prevention and post injury rehab, and we can add instability to some weight machines using a bosu, mini disc, or single leg stance, thus getting more out of the machine than what was designed.
Free weights, such as barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, and kettle bells, are by far the best choice for training. All these require a standing position with the weight fully supported by the body. Just standing in this loaded position promotes bone re-mineralization (helping prevent osteoporosis) and forces the use of the core. Free weights can be used to simulate real life activities, such as picking things up off the ground, pushing things up overhead, etc. Coordination and balance are necessary to use free-weights, but with weight stacks and bands, very little balance and coordination is required. By now, you probably realize that free weights are more efficient, making better use of the limited time you have to work out, since multiple muscle groups are necessary to do a single movement.
I’ll give it to all you weight stack users out there that it’s much easier to take a pin and move it up or down to change the weight, rather than going over to the bumper plate stack and loading a barbell with a safety clip on each end…but that, too, is part of real life training!