For the majority of people who exercise, function, health and/or optimal performance are more important than just building huge muscles. Yet, bodybuilding tech-niques and a preponderance of machine exercises have infiltrated all levels of training-from the novice weightlifter to the elite athlete.
This raises an important question: Has modern technology created machines that are a panacea for the exercise enthusiast, or is free-weight training the best way to exercise?
Each side has its strong supporters and equally vocal opponents. But when we look atthe scientific basis behind which exercises actually improve physical function, there is in fact little competition-free weights win hands down unless you are solely concerned with walking across a stage and selectively contracting your muscles.
We can consider the supremacy of free weights over machines by asking one simple question:
Do we live in a world where everything we do is performed sitting or lying down on a immovable piece of equipment?
Obviously not! Getting into a car, carrying shopping bags, lifting a child up from the floor and even just walking requires that we coor-dinate our body, limbs, joints and muscles in a myriad of different movements and positions. Yet, we go into the gym, strap ourselves into a machine and proceed to lift as much weight as possible.
How can this type of training be enhancing our ability to function in our everyday work or sports?
The simple answer is that it does not. The more detailed answer involves some discussion of the scientific principles of how physical movement is organized by the body and brain.
There are several concepts that must be understood to see how free-weight training works to improve the function of the human body. I define this type of workout as 'functional' exercise.
As upright human beings, we must move across the earth in a field of gravity. This is first and foremost. On a day-to-day basis, we do all sorts of activities-from climbing moun-tains, and working at construction sites and factories to riding buses, trains, motorcycles and skate-boards. Each activity we do requires the activation of special reflexes intended to protect us from hurting ourselves. These reflexes provide us with such abilities as regaining our balance when the bus takes off before we have sat down.
These reflex reactions are usually broken down into two major groups, although many work and sports activities require the use of both types:
- righting reactions predominate when moving across a fixed or stable surface such as a sidewalk or even a balance beam in gymnastics, which is fixed to the ground;
- equilibrium reactions predom-inate when our support surface moves beneath us (Hypes B. Facilita-ting Development and Sensorimotor Function. Stillwater, MN: PDP Press, 1991).
Windsurfing, working on a fishing boat in the open sea, or riding a horse or a motorcycle are examples of activities that use both righting and equilibrium reactions together, but which may require a dominance of equilibrium reactions.
Consider what happens when you are riding on the Underground: if you're not holding on when the train takes off and your tilt reflexes are slow, you know what will happen. The same could be said of any activity that requires a reflex response to maintain an upright posture or to protect the body. In fact, if we could speed the reflex response of our bodies by 50 per cent, we would reduce the chances of falling victim to an orthopaedic injury by about 80 per cent (Janda V. Function of Muscles and MusculoskeletalPain Syndromes: A Lab Course. San Diego, CA: April 1999).
Training on weight machines does nothing to enhance reflex responses. The machine does not move beneath you and, in general, you don't move your body across the machine. The use of equipment such as Swiss Balls and wobble boards, coupled with free weights and cables, are much more effective tools for improving reflex responses.
During most activities of daily life (aside from sitting in a chair, driving a car or using most of the exercise machines available anywhere in the world), we have to maintain our centre of gravity over our own base of support-commonly known as 'keeping our balance'.
If your centre of gravity shifts beyond your base of support, you are very likely to fall over unless your own inertial energy can hold you up. Examples of where your own inertial energy will hold you up are when carving a fast turn while skiing or when you are being supported by an external force-such as the wind while riding a sailboard.
In order to be able to keep your balance and prevent injury, you have to be able to support the weight of your own body, and to stabilize your joints both in static and dynamic positions.
A person can be said to possess good static stability when he can hold his own body (optimally aligned) in any position that allows him to carry out a goal or task against the weight of his own limbs and trunk, and any other additional load being handled by his body.
Examples of this are when leaning forward over a sink to brush your teeth or standing still while holding a heavy suitcase. Someone having good dynamic stability would be able to pick up the same suitcase and heave it into the boot of a car without injuring himself.
Again, it is clear that most daily activities require the integration of both static and dynamic postural functioning, yet most machine exercises improve neither static nor dynamic stability.
If you are using an exercise machine that supports the body in any way-in particular, the seated, prone, supine or leaning types-you are not activating the body's static stabilizer or postural system.
This is an essential concept to grasp when considering the harsh reality that stability must always precede the generation of force. As the old saying goes, 'You can't fire a cannon from a canoe.' This is precisely why you so often see a huge difference between a person's leg-press machine performance and his squat or deadlift performance.
Moving in synch
The brain is simply not large enough to store information on each and every individual move-ment that we have ever performed. Instead, researchers hypothesize that we store generalized motor programmes, or groups of move-ments that have the same relative timing (Schmidt RH. Motor Learning and Performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1991).
This means that training in one movement should also improve the performance of all other move-ments that have similar patterns.
For example, the squat move-ment pattern is very similar in timing to the jump movement pattern. Research clearly shows that there is poor carry-over from isolation exercises such as knee extensions, hamstring curls and even the leg press to improving the vertical jump.
Yet, at the same time, the research also clearly shows that resistance squat training provides significant improvement in vertical-jump performance. This suggests that the squat and jump move-ments may well be stored in the brain together, in one generalized motor programme.
It is my firm belief-and something that I use in my clinical practice-that the selective press-ures of evolution must necessarily have resulted in a human anatomy that is specifically designed to meet the demands made upon it by the natural environment. This had led me to conclude that if an individual cannot squat, lunge, bend, push, pull and twist from the standing position, or is unable to effectively ambulate (walk, jog or run), then his chances of survival would be severely curtailed (Chek P. Advanced Program Design Correspondence Course. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1998).
Nowadays, we are nothing but cavemen wearing fancy clothing and sitting at desks. If a human being cannot efficiently perform any of the 'primal patterns' mentioned above (see also WDDTY vol 19 no 11, pages 16-7) and do so at a level of subconscious competency, there is almost always injury lurking, if not already present.
The body is especially effective at combining primal pattern move-ments to create other movements-for example, when throwing a ball. To propel the object, the body first performs a lunge, which is followed by a twist, and then finishes with a push in the form of medial shoulder rotation, elbow extension, and accessory movements of the wrist and hand.
How does all of this relate to lifting weights as opposed to using exercise machines? Weight-training machines train individual muscles, not movements, and so the end result is stupid muscles. These muscles may be able to lift the whole stack of weights while doing a leg extension but, if the brain cannot use that strength when it is required outside of the gym, the amount of weight lifted is useless.
In contrast, free weights-particularly Olympic lifts and the old 'strongman' lifts-train the body in making movements that the brain can easily and quickly access when needed. Also, if you're going to isolate muscles while training, you must eventually re-integrate them again in order to use those muscles to perform any movements (Chek P. Scientific Back Training Correspondence Course. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1993).
Now, please don't take this to mean that there is no place for isolation exercises-because there certainly is. For example, if a person has had a C5-C6 disc bulge which has led to atrophy of the deltoid and rotator-cuff musculature as a result, I would prescribe isolation exercises to reverse the muscle atrophy as quickly and effectivelyas possible. However, what must then also be done, to complete the picture, is to integrate these muscles and joints along with the rest of the body.
Paul Chek is founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an internationally recognized lecturer and educator in the fields
of orthopaedic rehabilitation, and corrective and performance exercise. For more information, call 0208-874-6942 (UK) or visit his website at www.chekinstitute.com .