My argument/fascination between machine exercises versus free weight began February 1982. I was 21 years old, a Certified Nautilus instructor at Cedardale Health and Fitness Club, one of the largest sports facilities on the East Coast. The owners invested in a new circuit training program called “Nautilus.” I was given a text book and sat through a training video featuring Dr. Arthur Jones.
Do you remember Mr. Jones? Nautilus boasted results in one-third the time compared to free weight. In 1970, Dr. Jones introduced Nautilus equipment to the world , “the first of its kind marketed to utilize the principle of variable resistance to develop muscles and build strength.” During the video, Dr. Jones explained the physics of a single muscular contraction. With variable resistance the force was greatest at the peak of the contraction, which claimed increased muscular hypertrophy. Charting the strength curve looked similar to the Nautilus shell split down the middle. This “natures design” was manufactured into each piece of Nautilus machine; moving chains along “Nautilus” shaped cams on the machines.
Dr. Jones went on to describe the Mesomorph, Ectomorph and Endomorph physical-classification system. Which one are you? And to reinforce his claims to the Nautilus approach, Dr. Jones employed IFBB Pro Bodybuilders Mike Mentzer and Casey Viator. Both bodybuilders had their “Swole” on for the photo shoot. Page after page, from lower to upper body, Mike and Casey were featured on each Nautilus machine. These two bodybuilders were jacked and I was sold, hook, line and sinker! This wasn’t your typical “Universal Gym,” this was “State-of-the-Art- bitches!”
Note: Nautilus, Inc. is the maker of home fitness equipment brands Bowflex, Nautilus, Schwinn Fitness and Universal Gym Equipment.
For about six-months I trained “Nautilus” religiously and instructed my ass-off for 6,000 members. Our Nautilus program was an additional fee by appointment. It was in such great demand, we kept an appointment book with thirty-minute time slots. Two other weight lifters, Gary and Peter would periodically come down to our Nautilus room to compare notes and bust my balls. The weightlifters were both much larger and stronger than me and insisted I was wasting my time. Come to find out and many years later they were right!
Nautilus training was performed by doing a single set at each station isolating individual muscles and moving from lower to upper body, including the seated abdominal crunch machine. The goal was between 7 to 12 reps. Once 12 reps was achieved and became effortless, we set the pin to another plate. I gave each member a test to determine their level of fitness. All exercises were to be completed within 20 to 30 minutes. I didn’t fully understand, but Nautilus was “HUGE” and going after corporate executives that wanted to get a little jacked and still play Golf, Racquetball and Tennis. I remember President Ronald Reagan boasted training on Nautilus. Who knew this was the patriotic thing to do. Plus this training system claimed “intense” muscular and cardiovascular conditioning, 3x/week, with the illusion of looking like Mike Mentzer, I stayed motivated!
I noticed some women members couldn’t fit correctly on the equipment. The complaint produced an immediate reaction from the manufacture. The following year my club purchased an entire line of “Women’s Nautilus” $$$. This was a brilliant fix. Statistically speaking, women were beginning to utilize the machines more frequently than men.
I did begin to feel and see physical results, but nothing close to my vision of looking like a Pro bodybuilder. I was even food prepping way before it became a “thing”! I became frustrated and began doing multiple sets and eventually the entire weight stack multiple times. My strength increased, but still not the results I was looking to achieve! WTF?
Let’s jump to today, 2016. Many machine exercise companies have risen and fallen. The market has changed dramatically, equipment is being replaced by adult jungle gyms (Crossfit). Based on 35 years of training, I believe exercise machines can be misleading and can do more harm than good. Ask yourself these questions. Do machine exercises do the following? Develop overall strength, coordination, balance, endurance, flexibility, speed or cardiovascular benefits. Do they work stabilizer muscles – those muscles that help support the primary movers. The only “yes” I could come up with is strength, but is “strength” enough? Apparently not!
My top goal is to be functionally strong to support my sports and activities, but for the beginner or for a certified trainer instructing a beginner, mobility, function should be priority. Please don’t put your new client exclusively on machine exercises day-one. Test their overall fitness, flexibility and cardiovascular level first. If someone doesn’t want to get big muscles lifting free-weight, educate them. You’ll find that a lot of clients simply aren’t motivated, which you would think is a good thing for business, but it can be a double edged sword. As a trainer, you can become physically and mentally burnt out.
Determine their limitations, weaknesses. Work on weaknesses. There are plenty of training resources online and in bookstores to come up with creative ways to train without machines.
In my opinion, the word “Isolation” is misleading and often compared to compound-exercises. Is one better than the other? That is an entirely different argument, but if you are looking to isolate a muscle group, try doing it without using a machine. Use your body to isolate the movement. Make those stabilizer muscles work to isolate the primary muscle mover. This is going to be harder to perform, but the benefits are much greater. If you perform push-ups, sit-ups or chin-ups, you are the machine and are capable of performing hundreds of variations. Have you tried varying the grip, hand position, body position, the angle, the weight of your body – more or less, that’s what I’m talking about.
If you’ve watched the evolution of machine exercises, some manufacturers have taken strides towards mobility by introducing cable systems, like we see with “Free Motion” equipment line. This is an improvement! Now if you train at home like me, you don’t have the space and money for much equipment. You have to make smart choices with purchases. Besides free-weights, my go to exercise equipment to address function and mobility are Resistance Bands. I’ve trained many years, but have found most gains have been achieved from adding bands to warm-up, to warm-down, to rehabilitate. I use them to add accommodation (Accommodation Methods) to other exercises, be more dynamic, and to create multiple angles to attack those primary and secondary “stabilizer” muscles. I have many different bands from 30 pounds all the way up to 100 plus pounds for tension. High reps, long reps, blood pumps, and mobility. Be creative.
This brings up the discussion of mobility or lack of in this case. In my opinion, training with machine exercises exclusively is going to limit your mobility as a strength athlete. So maybe you don’t want to be a strength athlete, you’re just looking to become fit with less fat. That’s fine, but if you get injured because you lack range of motion from doing machine exercises, there’s only one person to blame, and it ain’t me!
Do I hate machines, NO!
Would I replace my free-weights, half-cage, Fat-pad, platform, Glute Ham, Resistance bands and Power bars with “Circuit Training Machines” NO!
Are there machines that improve weaknesses and work compound muscles like free-weight exercise, YES! You need to do your homework!
What do I think about the Smith Machine line? That’s another article!
Note: Gary Jones is Arthur Jones’s son, and Gary Jones is the founder of Hammer machines! Cool!