Should you use machines in the gym? (Part one)

The other day, I put up a somewhat random post about overcoming my fitness bias. The post, if you read it, was born out of an arrogant comment I made to a group of people about machines. I basically said that fitness machines are a waste of time and should all be melted down to make something more useful like metal toothbrushes. 

Ok, I didn't really say that, but I came off as kind of a tool. 

This is an adductor machine. For the love of all things holy, do not use this machine. Just...just don't. 

This is an adductor machine. For the love of all things holy, do not use this machine. Just...just don't. 

The thing about machines is that they are usually the first approach someone uses when dipping a toe into the world of strength training. I know when I first started my search for weight training routines, I hiked up to the third floor of the Simmons College sports center and followed the circuit of machines. Abs. Check. Bicep curls. Check. Chest flys. Check. I walked up and down the rows of machines like aisles in the grocery store and tried to get a little of everything. 


I was not armed with a program, routine, blog post instructions, youtube video; I went into that training room with nothing more than a desire to get started.

And THAT'S why my comment about machines to a group of strangers was not ok. What if someone sitting in that room was planning to head over to the fitness center and try out a couple of machines that very day? And I made her feel stupid?

Now, having said that, I don't believe machines are the best way to spend time in the weight room once you get there. And here's why. 

Machines - The good

When I say good, I really mean okay. Machines dictate the exercise, which can be appealing. If you're new to the gym and I hand you a pair of 12 pound dumbbells, you might do some bicep curls and military presses, but after that you're likely out of ideas. Machines on the other hand, tell you exactly what to do. Curls, leg press, pull downs, rows; you check out the diagram and description on the machine and get to it. 

There is also the argument that machines are safer because they limit the range of motion and, in theory, put you in the proper position to perform the movement. I say in theory, because if you have short legs and a long torso like I do, no amount of adjustments on this machine can help. Much like panty hose, machines are not a one size fits all. 

Quick history lesson

Nautilus machines (such as the one pictured above) were designed in the late 60's by Arthur Jones, a chain smoking engineer who's primary goal in life was to make his pet alligator the largest by Guiness Book of World Record standards. No, I'm not making that up. He called his first invention the "Blue Monster" Before his invention, people the world over were following the Arnold Schwartzenager method of training that involved body building and hours upon hours in the gym. 

This quote from the Wikapedia page (where else?) sums it up best:

"It was the advent of Nautilus machines that made resistance training appealing to the general public, fueling the fitness boom of the 1970s and 80s and resulting in Nautilus gyms in strip malls across America." *

Jones' creation sparked a revolution, so much so that when many people think of "working out," even now, they think of using the machines as opposed to dumbbells and barbells. 

Is this a bad thing? 

Yes and no. Like everything else in fitness, thigh high sizes and life, it depends. But here is where machines can fail us. 

Machines - the bad

1. Machines train individual muscles.

Unless your interest is body building, spending a lot of time doing bicep curls isn't doing you any favors. Even a Terrible Towel wave requires more than just one muscle. I mean you need rotary and core stability, grip strength, shoulder mobility - think of it yinzers, doing a bicep curl machine will not prepare you for football season. 

If you re-visit the grocery list of machines I used in my first workout, the muscles trained were random and specific. You'd be better off doing sets of squats, push ups, chin ups, and a deadlift variation that trains for than just one group of muscles. 

2. Machines require us to sit.

Most of us already sit all day for our jobs. I did a post awhile back on the dangers of sitting all day. As a culture we spend an average of eight hours a day sitting down, so is it really advisable to, when working out, spend even more time sitting? Sit on the recumbent bike for 20 minutes, and then move from machine to machine, sitting to work out? No, it's not. 

3. Train the movement, not the muscle

That phrase comes directly from the book I'm reading right now, "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance" by Dr. Stuart McGill. The machines train a limited range of motion and isolates the muscle. Unless you're interested in bodybuilding, and developing large triceps or biceps, five sets of 20 tricep press downs on a machine is only preparing you to do tricep press downs. 

The average person is not interested in bodybuilding. I mean we are and we aren't. Many women who sign up to train with me identify toning as one of the goals. Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, toning is really a version of bodybuilding, combined with fatloss. But you didn't ask for that. 

In short, you're better to replace various machine type movements with exercises involving either a dumbbell, kettlebell, barbelll, or cable machine, because these movements engage the entire body. They activate the core, train a more substantial range of motion, and ideally, eliminate sitting. So the next time you're tempted to sit down and do 25 bicep curls on a machine, replace that with standing, and using two separate dumbbells to perform the same movement, starting the curl at your thighs. This will engage the core, incorporate a fuller range of motion, and make you look waaaay more baddass than you did on the curl machine.

Check out part two here.

* I think Crossfit as a sport is the counter-measure to the effect Jones' invention had on the average person. While Jones' invention helped general people believe they could work out without looking like Arnold Swartzenager and spending hours in a gym, Crossfit has brought barbells and dumbbells to the masses.