Monday, March 22, 2010

The Fitness Matrix: Enslaved By Machines In the Gym

In the science fiction movie trilogy, The Matrix, artificial-intelligent machines that were developed by humans, end up enslaving humans. The humans' bodies are 'farmed' for their heat and electrical energy, while their minds are occupied by a simulated reality called the Matrix. In the movie, a few, rebellious humans fight back to free themselves from the oppression of the machines. While the action and the philosophical undertones make the movie pretty cool, I couldn't help but see similarities in our modern-day commercial gyms.

A typical, commercial gym in the United States has hundreds of fitness machines. Interestingly, when you observe people on these machines, it appears that the machines are drawing the exerciser's heat and electrical energy out of their bodies while their minds are occupied by the electronics (or television). More so, from a biomechanical and a motor learning standpoint, machines provide an artificial or sub-optimal training environment. These exercisers are adapting to the machines rather than developing innate physical function that protects them against injury or readily transfers over to other activities.

Why aren't yoga and martial arts performed on machines? Because these practitioners and students know how important it is to develop all physical qualities in a balanced manner. Machines are used to focus on one quality, while ignoring or underminding another quality. So much that is defined as fitness is utterly imbalanced, dysfuntional, or just plainly doing more harm than good.

While all of this may be evident to me, here are six issues associated with training on machines (whether that be 'strength' or 'cardio' machines) that you can look for the next time you are at a commercial gym:

1. Machine movement is in a fixed path and often encompasses a single joint. Our bodies come in different sizes and proportions. Machines are built for the 'average' person. Not only are you most likely not 'average', but also your limb lengths may be a slightly different ratio to your torso than 'average'.

2. Joint mobility and compensation are never addressed. It is assumed that you even have proper joint mobility to safely perform an exercise. If you don't, and this is very common, you will compensate at an adjacent joint(s). That is not always good since it may not be ideal to increase movement in an adjacent joint.

3. Dominance of prime movers over joint stabilizers with artificial stability. We all have seen the guy that can leg press 1000 pounds at the gym. But, have that guy try a body weight single-leg squat and he can't even do one! Enough said.

4. Reinforcing faulty movement patterns. Most people don't move efficiently. Often, they don't even know it. When they hop on a machine, like an elliptical trainer, they simply start moving the pedal and/or handles. Little do they realize that they are reinforcing a faulty movement pattern (leg never fully extends or posterior muscles activated).

5. Machines dictate what exercises are done. If your training is machine-based, your exercise selection or entire program is determined by what machines are in the gym. Ideally, the exercises and program should be based on your background and needs.

6. Machines emphasize working muscles instead of movements. The idea of working muscles has grown out of America's bodybuilding history of the 1970's and 1980's. We continue to have routines and machines based on muscles or muscle groups. Again, it is a simplified training model, but often results in dysfunction.

Don't be enslaved by the machines of your local commercial gym. Your body is constantly adapting to the stressors you place upon it. Machines provide an artificial environment that create imbalances and dysfunction. If a trainer puts you through a training program consisting of machines, they are either lazy, wasting your time, or just not very well educated in biomechanics. Most likely, they haven't performed an assessment, either. If they argue that you will start training on machines and will gradually move to free-weight exercises, they are still doing you a disservice. You should develop joint mobility and stability (on the ground) before you attempt to add strength or endurance on top of that. If not, you are asking for an issue down the road. My philosophy is "Be The Machine!" Don't let a machine dictate your training or mindlessly work your body. Every part of your training should be done in context of 'moving well'. And, from what I see in the gym, that rarely happens.

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