In last week’s blog I perused the idea of building a home gym. If you read it you probably noticed that I favored barbells and free weights over machines. Why you may wonder… well read on my friend!
Simply put, gaining strength is one of the best things you can do to improve your health and extend your life (a little primer for next week’s blog). So if you want to get strong and better your health, why not do it in the most efficient way possible? I mean we’re all are busy, right? We all have places to go, things to do, people we care about to see, so why waste more time training than needed to get the best results? Free weights are just more efficient at building overall body strength than machines. Mark Rippetoe gives a good explanation of this in his article Barbells vs Machines vs Everything Else (or listen to the article via this podcast).
It’s not just efficiency that makes free weights advantageous. Mark touches on another key point of using barbells and free weights… “they utilized the normal functions of all the joints and muscles in the body”. Some call this Functional Movement or Compound Movement.
To keep things simple, I’ll only touch on a couple of the many benefits of functional movement. First, functional movements are natural movements that you would do in real life. Do you sit down in a chair and stand back up? That’s a squat. Do you lift objects up off the floor? Hey, that’s a deadlift. Have you ever put something up in a cupboard or on a shelf above your head? Amazingly enough you’ve done an overhead press! These exercises mimic real world movements… hence “functional movements”. If you’re still scratching your head trying to understand what “functional” or “compound” movements/training really is, here’s a fun video.
Contrast this with movements that aren’t very functional even with free weights, like a Side Lateral Raise. There’s not a lot of everyday use in life for this type of motion, unless maybe you’re trying to flap your arms to learn to fly (tried as I might, I figured out as a kid that it’s just not possible… very disappointing). The other thing that is the antithesis of functional movement is when only one joint or very small muscle group is targeted. This is often referred to as isolation exercises. This brings us back to to why machines aren’t very effective. They usually isolate one joint or muscle group. It is not very time efficient if you have to train a bunch of small groups instead of multiple muscle groups at one time. This is also where the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” rings true. Compound exercises overall will deliver superior results.
That doesn’t mean isolation exercises and machines are bad. If you have some stubborn areas you want to work on, isolation exercises may be what you need. However this is usually comes much later in your training, and maybe never if your goal is to just improve overall body strength. Does this mean a newcomer to free weights can’t use machines? No!!! Some people are hesitant to start lifting free weights right off the bat. If you are already already using machines as your primary exercise equipment, slowly transition to free weights by learning one exercise at a time as discussed in this article. One word of caution though if you are new to strength training and want to start off on cable machines and transition to free weights over time… watch the pulley setup on the machines or you may become frustrated/have false expectations of what you may be able to lift with free weights.
So if you’re starting out and you don’t want to waste time building strength, focus on those compound functional movements using barbells and other free weights. If your going to push yourself to work out in the gym (be it at home or a commercial gym) there’s going to be times when it’s psychologically difficult to want to do it. If you’re going to push yourself through those moments it’s best to have the cards stacked in your favor. Do things that are effective (you can see and measure the results) and are efficient (greatest progress for the least amount of time… note I say least amount of “time” not “effort”), which barbells and free weights are compared to machines. It’s demotivating to spend 2 hours in the gym doing isolation exercises on machines and see slow/little results when an hour doing functional compound lifts could get you the same or better results.
Yes machines are easy to learn. Yes a commercial big box gym doesn’t have to employ trainers to teach you how to use isolation machines (a single joint movement is hard to mess up versus a compound multi-joint movement). So be safe and do your research on proper form and technique prior to doing barbell exercises. With proper form and technique, weightlifting is actually safer than most sports. So if you’re not afraid to play Badminton, where you’re 41.7* times more likely to get injured than weightlifting, you might just give pumping some iron a try.
Till next week…. stay healthy, stay happy, and stay strong! ~Ryan
*In full disclosure, this is a “relative risk” statistic (ie. a scare tactic showing how much more likely to be injured in one sport relative to another). Absolute risk for injury in Badminton is 0.05 injuries per 100 participant hours, and 0.0012 injuries per 100 participant hours according to the study.