Monday, October 1, 2007

How Much Machine?

Some people avoid free weights because they're intimidated by the cavemen who frequent that dark corner of the gym. Some people are intimidated by the weights them selves, being unsure what to do with them and afraid of hurting themselves. But free weights have to be the cornerstone of your workout.

Recently, I've seen people who were extremely strong on machines get toppled by bodyweight exercises. This is dangerous and counterproductive. Everybody wants to look nice, but real world strength is the real goal. Free weights offer both.

Machines limit your movement to certain planes, and isolate muscle groups in ways you'll never encounter in real life. If you've only ever done supported machine rows, then you're upper back will be strong enough to pick up that heavy box of books, but your lower back will strain like a seive.

Every workout should start out with compound free weight exercises: bench press, shoulder press, chin ups, deadlifts and squats. These are often uncomfortable, and you'll feel a little unstable. Start with light weight and proper form, and you'll progress quickly. Mix up dumbbells and barbells for building both stability and raw strength.

So what are machines good for?
1. Burn out
After I've done my dumbbell exercises, my stabilizers are shot, but my main movers might not be. That's when I take it to the machines, so that I can safely go all out.

2. Mixing things up
There are some exercises that depend on a machine. You can shake up your routine either to avoid burnout or shock your body into new growth with exercises like this.

3. Muscle isolation
While machines usually do a bad job with compound exercises, due to the fact that they have locked into paths of movement that may not match yours during complicated, multi-planar exercises, they are great at isolating to a degree that is often difficult with free weights. A hamstring curl with a dumbbell simply isn't the same as with a machine.

4. Resistance throughout a movement
The problem with dumbbell flyes is that at the point when your muscles should be contracting the hardest, the resistance is the least, going straight down through your arms and into the bench. A cable fly, on the other hand, has a constant difficulty. This is true of curls, laterals, and any number of other exercises. Muscles tend to gain strength in the angle that they are used. If you want strength through the full range of a motion, you need resistance throughout that movement.

So what's the lesson here? Machines have their place, especially cables, which will work your stability, too. But machines should be used to supplement free weights, not replace them. Take the time to learn to do the big lifts correctly. The payoff for your patience will be strength that is there when you need it.

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