Do you “do the machines”? You know what I’m talking about: those mammoth, always-available (let’s hope), impressive-looking contraptions looming in your gym, taking up more than their fair share of space? The equipment beckoning you over, promising to do the all of the work for you? Here’s what might come as a surprise: not only are you cheating yourself, but you may be unintentionally doing more harm than good.
Take a good look around you at the people who are actually on these machines. Do they display exemplary posture? Are their abdominal muscles engaged to support their spine? Is the weight stack set at a responsible number? My guess? No. More than likely, these folks appear bored to the max (how could you not be?) with slouchy shoulders and soft bellies. For good measure, they are probably also reading a magazine or craning their necks toward the nearest boob-tube.
In the “old days”, these machines were shiny and new; attracting potential members from all directions to flock to the gym that possessed the most of them. The price tags on these things were substantial, but the lure for profit proved an astute investment. I have to believe that these pioneers were also motivated by good intentions: happy members, improved health, and increased general fitness. Some smaller gyms have even relied solely on the equipment, marketing a full-circuit workout with illustrated directions and a mapped course to follow.
“If we only knew then what we know…” These days, there is mounting, escalating, downright overflowing evidence that some of these machines cause serious injury. Yet, people are still using them. At this very minute. The information is out there, it’s just not being appropriately broadcast. Let’s go over what has been learned thus far.
Studies have shown that some common machines, as well as movements, are putting the body in a vulnerable position and could result in injury. Take the lat pulldown, for example. It’s perfectly acceptable to use this machine by pulling the bar down in front of your face while supporting your core with good posture. I’ve even used this pulley while standing to target lats and triceps in a straight arm press. This machine becomes dangerous, however, when the bar is pulled down behind the head. Few of us have the amount of flexibility in our shoulders and pectorals necessary to perform this movement safely. Another outcome to consider: if the bar is pulled down with explosive force, the bar can seriously damage the neck if it comes into contact. Have you ever shattered a drinking glass by hitting it “just right”? Yeah, let’s not do that to our precious spine.
Another machine to rethink is the Smith machine. The Smith machine looks like a squat rack, only the plate-loadable bar is attached to a fixed track and can be set at multiple levels along that track. When you perform a squat using the Smith machine, your movement is restricted to the path of the track. This renders you unable to move naturally, putting excessive strain on your knees and lower spine. Squats using free weights or an Olympic bar allow for much more natural movement and will generate a higher quality of muscle activation. Now having said that, the Smith machine is useful for many “off label” exercises. Setting the bar midway gives you a great, stable bar to perform body rows with. Flip yourself over, and you can easily gauge your progress on the incline push-up.
On to my most- (or least- depending on how you interpret my approach) favorite: the dreaded, seated abduction/adduction machine. One of the most popular, you will see countless women (mostly) glued to this thing, squeezing those thighs until they have read Vogue cover to cover. Suzanne Somers would be proud. Cue forehead smack. How many times, in your life, do you find yourself needing to sit down and press your thighs together or away from each other against resistance? Please prove me wrong, but this seems utterly irrelevant to daily function. Not just that: research has confirmed that these movements, especially when bearing heavier weight, puts the lumbar spine at risk for bulged or slipped disks. Do yourself (and me) a favor and stop doing this. In fact, lobby for your gym to trash this one altogether.
Don’t let yourself be wooed by the variety of equipment the next time you are shopping for fitness centers. Less is more. Keep it simple. If you cannot apply the movement you make in the gym to your daily life, ask yourself why you are doing it. There is no magical piece of equipment out there that will hand over the results you are looking for, however, those results can and will be attained with hard work and intelligent choices.
Jodilyn Stuart is the owner of ModaBody Fitness and has been a fitness professional since 1997. She currently contributes to 303 Magazine as a Fitness and Health writer.