Walk into most gyms, and you’ll see rows upon rows of seated machines. Leg presses, hamstring curls, knee extensions and the like are what populate most gym floors and you’ll see a ton of people using them.
But, is this the best way to go to get stronger? If you sit down all day to work, does it make sense to sit when you exercise as well? One of the bigger reasons given for using machines is the reduced risk for injury, but how valid is this?
I’ll be honest, if you read this blog with any frequency, and if you don’t, WHY NOT!, you know that I’d rather get a root canal than use a seated machine to train. With all of the options available, why would someone use what is in my opinion (and several others in the strength coach world) an inferior method of getting stronger?
You CAN use one if you limit your exposure, and incorporate real exercise along the way (single leg deads/squats, Bulgarian split squats, farmer’s walks, etc). But, why take the time when there are much more efficient ways to connect the nervous system and the muscles?
I will point out something that very much makes the argument against sitting down to train. I know bike riders who can uphill in gears so big they can eat up about a mile’s worth of road with one pedal stroke.
Strong right? Wrong. I’ve seen these same riders in a gym setting unable to stand on one leg for more than 15 seconds without flopping around like a picket fence gone awry in a windstorm. So, seated, supported, on a bike, they can produce a ton of force. When more of the stabilization system of the body needs to work to keep them upright, fitness fail.
So to that point, why leg press when you can squat or deadlift? Two extremely safe movements you can easily learn with a dowel rod that weights about a lb at most.
With all of the resources available online and in book form, let alone the amount of strength coaches you can ask for help, there is no shortage in quality information available to safely learn how to train correctly. So I don’t buy into “machines are safer” as a reason to use one.
Buy Eric Cressey’s “Maximum Strength” book, or “The Single Leg Solution” book/DVD by Mike Robertson or pick up a copy of “Functional Training for Sports” by Mike Boyle, all awesome resources to learn how to train real exercise the right way. In fact the “Essence Of Functional Training” by Juan Carlos Santana is probably the best of the lot in terms of an incredibly simple approach to learning how to train correctly. See, resources, available, en mass, no excuse to not get out of the box at the gym.
With that being said, let’s start this seated machine diatribe with one of the more popular pieces of lower body equipment in a gym, the leg press. Its something that, in this reporter’s opinion, is a completely non-functional piece of equipment, particularly for cyclists on traditional bikes.
The angle of force application is at a 45 degree incline, and unless you’ve just crashed and somehow are still pedaling face up, there is very little to no functional strength carry over to riding a bike from a leg press, let alone specificity of training. Especially since a pedal is pushed down to produce force.
A Bulgarian Split Squat is a much better exercise for a cyclist to do. Step ups are great too. If you can climb a set of stairs pain free, you’ve done step ups.
I’m getting at motor programming here. Want to get better at pushing down a pedal, then, well, apply force in a downward direction. Pretty straight forward!
Not to be left unmentioned that “the further away from a movement you are intending to improve an exercise is, the further away from actually improving that movement you get” as Paul Chek says. The leg press is not a good alternative to the squat for several reasons, and this is but one of them. Soooo, why do it? Work with me here people, I’m here to help!
You’ve got two kinds of posture, static and dynamic. Static is how your muscles align your bones before you move. Dynamic is how your muscles align your bones as you move. Since your power production is limited by joint stability, this is a pretty important concept.
When you use a guided resistance machine in a seated position of any kind, you are not activating the body’s static stabilizers or postural system. This is very important keeping in mind static stability must always proceed force production (1). This is why power meters don’t measure power for cyclists. They measure the amount of force your joint stability allows you to produce.
Machines dictate how a load is moved when you use one. This isn’t how we move in a real world 3D setting. With that being said, in a seated/supported environment your body doesn’t have to recruit as many mechanisms of stabilization because the machine is doing that for you.
“Machines. They really serve no purpose in any resistance training program outside of a rehabilitation setting (and even that’s pushing it),” says Tony Gentilcore (Program Design for Dummies). “Machines do very little as far as improving inter- and intramuscular coordination, and they do nothing for improving core strength.”
In a rehab/corrective setting, where seated position and maybe a supported guided resistance is the only form of movement someone might get post op/injury/etc, then I see the application and I get there will be instances where this will need to be the go to mode of training.
If someone does need to sit to exercise for whatever reason, then you need to ask what else can they do? Can they pull/press tubing or cable pulleys? What about free weights? Can those be safely added to the mix? What other ways to challenge the nervous system while seated, what are they, and how often can they be done and still move someone forward?
Back to the story. To Gentilcore’s point, I’ve seen people move over 1000lbs on a leg press for a set of 10 who can’t deadlift 200. On the leg press, the load is stabilized for them by the sled.With the deadlift, a lot more neuromuscular coordination needs to take place for the load to be moved off the floor requiring massive neural sequencing of the entire back half of the body.
Our bodies are meant to work in an integrated fashion with multiple joints working together to produce movement. This does not need to happen when you sit down to lift with a fixed/guided load.
If you program your training against how our bodies are designed to move using our static and dynamic postural systems, you will almost always run the risk of creating dysfunctional joint movements during standing functional exercise (1).
Again, if you aren’t working on mastering force production while controlling your center of gravity over your own base of support, mirroring the activity you want to improve, you aren’t helping yourself get better.
This is why hamstring curls, leg presses (even the single leg variety), knee extensions and the like don’t do much to help cycling. The movement patterns are no where near anything you’d do in the saddle! Specificity of training, right?
For the muscles of our core to work correctly, we need proprioceptive input from all three planes of motion (2). These are the saggital (forward/backward), frontal (side to side, don’t ask, I report on the rules I don’t create them!) and the transverse plane (rotation).
Stand up to exercise, you can easily hit all three planes. Sit down with guided resistance, and, well, not so much.
Since most people already live in the saggital plane for the majority of their day at a desk, and in their recreational activities if they swim, ride a bike or run, where is the benefit of exercise that is not only supported, but also takes place in the same plane of motion where they spend most of their time (3)? None that I can see.
But aren’t machines safer to use? This is a common reason cited for the use of machines over free weights.
One that I have a difficult time signing off on. If you can literally incorrectly program your nervous system to produce faulty movement patterns with long term exposure, and essentially keep your static stabilizers from doing their job, how are they safer over the long term?
In their “New Rules for Lifting” book series, Alwyn Cosgrove and Lou Shuler outline the most effective training methodologies someone can use to get stronger, leaner and more fit. One of the rules they touch on in the first book of the series is “Don’t do machines,” and I agree.
They mention how the hamstring curl, knee extension, leg press and the like for the lower body don’t come anywhere near actually mimicking a squat pattern, something that is critical for upright ambulatory humans to master because we do it DAILY. The way a machines dictates the way your body moves are very rarely useful in a real world setting where we actually move (4).
When it comes to bilateral movement (two limbs working together) on a machine whether it is the upper or lower body, how often do you actually get two limbs that have the same strength, range of motion or coordination? In the 12 years I’ve been training people, I’ve very rarely seen this.
The joint angles could be different. One hip could be higher than the other, one shoulder could be internally rotated (not too mention elevated) more than the other making moving a weight through a fixed range of motion risky at best due to the fact you may have two different sets of joints that need different ranges of motion to safely work that are forced into a singular movement pattern (4).
“Weights are not quite as likely to cause and acute injury but still pretty safe, however a machine may be more likely to cause a chronic injury because the position and motion of the joints are more constrained,” Steven Rice, strength coach.
If you are beginning a training program, you need to know that machines have the potential to force your joints into unnatural ranges of motion that can lead to a long term injury. That is what Rice was referring to. Ever had a bad bike fit and developed aches and pains? Your body was forced to work in a specified range of motion and it rebelled. Same thing.
They also prevent your body from doing the most important and useful muscle building movements: integrate compound movement with multiple joints moving at once while you provide your base of support (4).
Use a machine, and you very much run the risk of sustaining a repetitive stress injury.
This means that if you predominantly move in one plane of motion, and you don’t develop the appropriate motor patterns of proper movement, you very much increase the risk of sustaining an injury in working tissues (5). This is what can happen with repeated exposure to a singular movement/exercise.
If you repeatedly hammer the same muscles/tissues that you used in training/competition, you run the risk of reflexively inhibiting local stabilizers and running into pattern overload (6). Since machines in general limit the natural movement of the body, this is something that can very easily happen.
Again, when you move a weight on a fixed plane of motion, your nervous system isn’t given the freedom it needs to protect the joints working as well as the relevant soft tissues providing movement from an injury. This gets very tricky when you take into account that moving a load in an isolated manner using a supported machine, the load in the working muscles, tendons, ligaments and joint structures gets a lot higher (6).
When you move a weight in a fixed axis of rotation or range of motion, the muscle fibers that bear the majority of the load are isolated. When these fibers fatigue on a fixed resistance machine, you get less dynamic control over the load and working joints. This in turn can cause a lot more trauma to the working connective tissue, tendon and muscle fibers (6).
Here’s where things get tricky using machines with guided resistance. If you combine poor technique (which most people have, I periodically train in public big box gyms so I see this first hand) with over use with a guided load (which most people will), when fatigue sets in you run the risk of loss of motor control in the relevant movement pattern and plane of motion that can lead to overloading passive joint structures (6).
This again comes back to the fact that our nervous systems thinks in terms of movement patterns and not isolated muscle function. When a command for “move” is given from the brain, the body will move. Regardless of if you are firing your muscles the right way.
Ever sprained an ankle and limped around to get from point A to point B? Done this and eventually developed pain somewhere else? BINGO! You need to move, your body makes it happen even if it leads to something else going south.
This is why it is critical to train using you as your base of support so you don’t run the risk of creating artificial sensory feedback, faulty sensory-motor integration and abnormal forces throughout your kinetic chain. This will ultimately lead to “dumb muscles” because you are literally asking them to do things they neurologically don’t understand (7).
Since we know that low back pain is usually indicative of weakness in the lumbar multifidus and transverse abdominus (TVA) muscles, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to train these areas at the gym. Stand up to train, you can easily do this. Sit down, and guess what, nope. The seated environment will not work these muscles (8).
In a healthy individual, the TVA will be one of the first muscles to fire when you move. This supports the notion that if don’t get proper recruitment from the TVA, you can develop faulty motor programming. Your muscles may eventually not work in the optimal order, optimal relative timing or with the right force production needed for coordinated, efficient movement (8).
The muscles of the core pretty much have one job: dissipate gravitational forces, ground reaction forces and momentum. Meaning, your core keeps your spine and hips from getting hammered by gravity when you move. A seated machine does not allow this to happen because it is supporting you as you move. Anyone sensing a them here?
Since our bones are held together by passive tension in ligaments and by active contraction of the muscles surrounding our joints, it is extremely critical that our stabilizers work withthe prime movers to maintain an optimal relationship between the two bones. Sit down to train, you exponentially work prime movers (think beach muscles!) at a higher rate than your stabilizers (9).
Get your prime movers strong to the point where they over power the stabilizers, you move incorrectly and eventually get injured because you created faulty motor engrams. A fancy way of saying movement that happens without conscious thought.
The key to preventing this from happening is to focus your training on neuromuscular stabilization, core stabilization and eccentric training in the three planes of motion mentioned earlier. If you want huge beach muscles, use machines. Want to maximize the way your brain gets your muscles to move your bones? Stand up to exercise (9).
This creates maximal motor unit recruitment, leading to a greater overall training response. Training in multiple planes of motion “elicits greater motor unit recruitment from agonists, synergists, stabilizers, and neutralizers (9).”
If you got down this far, wow, you are a very curious individual! You might even be asking yourself, what the hell did all of this gobbly gook mean?
Stand up to exercise, you get stronger faster. Sit down to exercise, and you aren’t maximizing your time in the gym. Wow, about a zillion words to state those two sentences, but I’m all about under promising and over delivering so that’s what you get when I take the proverbial pen to paper!
Hopefully this will shed some light on why you should stand up to exercise and help you be a more informed consumer the next time you are the gym. If it doesn’t, well, read all three posts again until it does!!
- “Movement that Matters,” Paul Chek
- “Get off the floor to work the core Part I,” Ben Cormack
- “Get off the floor to work your core Part II,” Ben Cormack
- “New Rules of Lifting,” Lou Shuler and Alwyn Cosgrove
- “Pattern Overload, Part I,” Paul Chek, T-Nation.com
- “Pattern Overload, Part II,” Paul Chek, T-Nation.com
- “Hamstring Machine Compensation,” Noah Hittner, PTontheNet.com Q
- “Get off your Rear!,” Stephanie Holt
- “Essentials of Integrated Training Part I,” Dr. Micheal Clark, DPT, MS, CES, PES