The strength training machines you see in The Perfect Workout studios are descendants of machines that were created by Nautilus, Inc. in the 1970’s. Arthur Jones not only originated the fundamental principles behind brief and intense strength training, he also invented the original set of Nautilus machines. Within a few years, machines from Nautilus and sprouting rival companies were in many public gyms as well as college and professional sports training facilities.
This led to one of the most famous on-going debates in the fitness industry: free weights or machines. In other words, is it more effective to use strength training machines or free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells? If you are reading this, you are probably aware that our studios are primarily filled with strength training machines. There are reasons for that.
While both options provide results when the user trains with a high level of intensity, we generally prefer well-designed machines for a number of reasons. Machines can be safer to train on than free weights, they allow for better concentration which can facilitate a higher intensity level, many machines provide resistance throughout each repetition’s entire range of motion, and there are several additional advantages of machines which I don’t have enough space to cover in this brief article.
If you recall the days when you first learned to drive, then you’ll probably remember someone telling you, “safety first”. The same recommendation applies to training. As you know, the goal of strength training at The Perfect Workout is to reach “muscle success”, the point when the targeted muscle is so fatigued that it cannot move the resistance any further. In many free weight exercises, training to complete exhaustion leaves the possibility that the weights may fall on the trainee afterwards. As we know, training to “muscle success” leaves our muscles with less control and fatigued for a few minutes afterward. If a person lost control of the weight when training on a machine, most machines are designed so that the weight would just fall on the weight stack (instead of on top of you!), so that’s one reason why machines can be safer than free weights.
As far as getting results, a necessary factor in successful strength training is mentally pushing your muscles to that very deep level of “muscle success” fatigue. This takes focused mental concentration, and each person has a limited ability to concentrate in any given moment. A well-designed machine can eliminate sources of distraction, enabling deeper concentration and a deeper level of fatigue in the the targeted muscles, and as a result help stimulate better improvements in your body. As an example, consider the leg press vs. a free weight squat (with a barbell on top of your shoulders). Both exercises are potentially very effective for improving the muscles in your buttocks and front thighs (and to a lesser degree the muscles in your rear thighs and calves). With the leg press, as you near “muscle success” all of your concentration ability can be used to push as hard as you can, helping you stimulate the big changes in your muscles and your body. You don’t have to worry about anything else other than pushing hard. In the barbell squat, if you approach “muscle success” fatigue levels, a significant portion of your concentration needs to be used to focus on balancing and avoiding falling down, and this reduces your mental energy available to make your muscles push hard. In this respect, the leg press has the potential to allow you to stimulate greater increases in the targeted muscles.
Another benefit of well-designed machines is resistance throughout the entire range of motion. A machine has the potential to better harness the power of gravity when compared with free weights. For example, in a standing biceps curl with a barbell, gravity provides significant resistance to the biceps during the middle portion of each repetition. However, at the lower and upper ends, the exercise moves perpendicular to the force of gravity, basically providing rest for the muscles. Biceps exercises with machines usually feature a rotating wheel called a “cam” that varies resistance and enables constant work for the muscle throughout the repetition, and this can result in a more thorough workout for the muscles.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying dumbbells, barbells, and other free weights are not effective training tools. In fact, in 1992 when I first began using slow-motion strength training in my own workouts, I was training in a relatively primitive gym in which my initial routines involved many free weight exercises, and I still was able to make excellent improvements. If a person trains intensely, he or she will achieve great results, regardless of the equipment. However, we find that strength training machines help our clients train safely and effectively, and that’s what we’re all about.
By Matt Hedman, President of The Perfect Workout