The trouble with many commercial gyms these days is that they’re full of fancy machines, while barbells and weight plates are increasingly rare. Most gyms still have them, but there’s often a sense that these antique, time-tested training tools are second rate, and modern, complex machines are far better for regular people. Invented and popularized by Arthur Jones in the 1970’s, modern exercise machines quickly became the industry standard for getting strong and in shape. From a commercial standpoint, it’s easy to see why. Machines are easy to use, even if you’ve never trained before. They require little or no coaching, saving gyms money on staff. They also satisfy the unfortunate human need for complication. How could a simple barbell accomplish the same work as a circuit of 12 different machines, designed to exercise every part of the body? To the inexperienced trainee, it doesn’t seem possible, and commercial gyms turn this to their advantage. Trouble is, machines aren’t as good as barbells for getting strong. Not even close. Here’s why.
MACHINES DO HALF THE WORK
Stabilization strength is your ability to prevent a freely moving weight deviating from the most efficient path of movement. A barbell filled with weight plates is free to move wherever it will. Load it on your back for a set of squats, and you’ll need to keep it in precise balance as you drop and rise through each rep. This requires lots of core strength, a firm, stable upper back and a well developed kinesthetic sense (knowing how your body is moving), to keep your lumbar spine neutral. Using the barbell squat as an example, the closest machine equivalents are hack squats, Smith machine squats and leg presses. These all share the same shortcoming – the weight can only move in a path predetermined by the machine. There is no stabilization involved, which means core strength is far less crucial, and therefore less likely to develop in trainees who train exclusively with machines. For many barbell movements, good technique is defined by the lifter’s ability to keep the weight moving in a straight, vertical path over their mid-foot. Inability to do so results in a less efficient lift. Machines deprive their users of the chance to develop the strength needed for good technique, because good technique isn’t necessary.
THE MAIN BARBELL LIFTS ARE THE MOST NATURAL MOVEMENTS
Strength training is only useful if it makes life easier. That means movements done in the gym need to translate effectively to movements outside it. Barbell training satisfies this requirement. Take the squat. Most people think of it as a quadriceps exercise, but it actually works the entire posterior chain: glutes, abductors, hamstrings, AND quads. Exercises that use more than one muscle group are called “compound exercises”. They’re much more applicable than “isolation exercises” to lifting everyday objects, which almost always requires multiple muscle groups. The hip and knee hinging involved in the squat is natural and safe when done correctly, and driving the bar back up recruits each link in posterior chain, training them to work together and allowing more weight to be moved. Similarly, bench press, overhead press and deadlift all work multiple muscles, training the body to work as a unified whole, as it’s designed and forced to in most everyday lifting tasks.
MACHINES UNNATURALLY ISOLATE MUSCLES
Isolation exercises certainly have a place is overall strength development. Bodybuilders for example perform many different isolation exercises to hit every muscle group from multiple angles and build their physiques. For strength athletes, isolation exercises fortify weaker muscles so they perform better on big compound lifts. These are legitimate uses for exercise machines, which usually isolate single muscle groups. The leg extension machine for example, works only the quadriceps. Trouble is, many inexperienced trainees believe machines are all they need to get strong. They’re sorely mistaken. The human body simply isn’t designed to use single muscle groups in isolation. In fact, just about the only situation where this happens is on a machine designed for the purpose. The barbell squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press are far more effective than any machine for building strength the way the human body is designed to.
A WORD ON UNIVERSAL HOME GYMS
If you’re thinking of setting up a workout facility at home, do yourself a favour and avoid the total gym section of the equipment catalogue. Trying to strengthen the whole body with a fleet of machines is bad enough. Attempting it with a single machine is laughable. You’ll build some strength in individual muscles, but your body will be completely untrained in the kind of strength it’s meant for – full body strength. The humble barbell might seem intimidating, outdated, or too simple. Buy one anyway, and learn to use it properly. You’ll thank yourself later.