The first thing I usually notice when I walk into the gym is that most people are working out on weight machines (secondary to guys doing bicep curls of course). But is working out on a machine really the best way to achieve your goals or reduce the chances of injury?
4 Reasons Why Weight Machines Suck
1. Lack of functional muscle (“false” strength)
Not to be mistaken, machines can be used for targeting specific muscle groups. You can still develop an impressive appearance but your muscles will ultimately be lacking in function since your stabilizing muscles are not being used with machine exercises.
Performing a machine workout and doing something in real life, such as lifting a heavy box, are two entirely different things. Unfortunately, machine exercises do not recruit your stabilizer muscles since a machine will guide your body through a very restricted range of motion; you just simply pull or push. So while you’re piling more weight onto your machine, you may find that your ability to lift a box has not improved at all.
When lifting a box, you must recruit your stabilizer muscles to keep the weight balanced rather than relying on a machine to focus all your force to only the working muscles. Using a machine will keep your stabilizer muscles underdeveloped compared to your primary muscles. In this case, the stabilizer muscles would include your abs, gluteus maximus (if you’re squatting down before lifting), back, and legs in order to steady your body when lifting a box.
2. Increased risk of pattern overuse injuries
While machines may be able to lessen injuries because of bad form, they can also increase your risk of injury by forcing your body into repeated, fixed movement patterns for several weeks or even months at a time. This may lead to overuse injuries by working the same set of muscles and ligaments again and again. When using free weights, this is less likely to happen since your body will probably follow a slightly different movement pattern with every repetition.
3. False sense of safety
Some people believe that since there is no chance of having a weight fall on you even when you fatigue, there is no chance of injury. Even if you are moving the weight through the correct motions, you can still tear muscles or strain ligaments if you overload the machine beyond your capability.
4. Locked-in, unnatural body movements
Although it is very popular, the Smith machine is one of the worst machines you can use at the gym. When doing squats, the machine constrains you into a pattern of motion that is unnatural to your body; this motion is not specific to your body. This can put you at risk for lower back, knee, and hip injuries. By squatting with free weights (using the Olympic Barbell), you can cater the motion to your body’s natural movement pattern and recruit your stabilizer muscles, therefore lessening your chance of injury.
The Bottom Line
Recently, one of my friends transitioned from using the Smith machine to free weight squats with the Olympic bar. It took him nearly 3 weeks before he could squat the same amount of weight again; he was struggling to balance the bar and had to relearn the proper form all over again.
Even if you are a beginner to weight lifting, I suggest trying free weights first since you will notice better gains while being safer compared to using a machine.
Especially as an athlete, unless you only want aesthetically pleasing, non-functional muscle, stay away from machines and stick to the free weights.