Using exercise machines to workout has become commonplace in our culture. For many people these machines are irreplaceable. But let’s pause for a moment: Is there anything strange about using machinery to train our bodies? What does using machines train you for? Well, for using machines.
Machines do such a great job of creating a stable environment that little-to-no balance is required on your part. And that means you need far fewer muscle groups to accomplish a given task. In the end that means you do less work in a machine-based activity and hence you get less benefit for your muscles and overall fitness. Relying on machines for exercise can actually detrain your nervous system and its ability to coordinate many muscle groups efficiently and effectively. This could lead to injury, aside from just being less helpful in general.
Many such machines were developed in the 1960’s and after, and are a mainstay for physical therapy and helping patients recover from injuries. For these patients, having a more stable environment is often necessary because of a previous injury and the need to isolate a specific muscle or muscle group. Isolating muscle groups is also a helpful tool to address specific muscular imbalances. But for the rest of us what we need is actually a less stable environment and less isolation! (Not to mention that many people recovering from injuries can benefit from stability training too.)
In my personal workouts and programs for my clients I emphasize ‘functional training’ and ‘stability training’, both of which have been rising in popularity recently. These are closely related training methods and, in my opinion, make the most sense if your goal is total fitness and long-term health. An exercise is “functional” if it trains you to accomplish tasks that might come up in your ordinary life, e.g. lifting boxes, opening heavy doors, recovering from a fall, running up stairs, etc. But functional training can also go beyond these more everyday activities to include any activity that uses most of your body to accomplish a specific task, e.g. climbing a rope, throwing a large object, or jumping onto a high surface.
When we are moving in the world, most of our body is required (hence the argument against machines). This means complex coordinations are performed by the nervous system to organize one’s entire body toward attaining a goal. There are major muscle groups activating to generate power, but there are also smaller muscle groups that bear the responsibility for keeping you from falling over, keeping your joint surfaces aligned, etc. And it is the activation and coordination of these many muscle groups that ‘stability’ training focuses on.
Balancing is all about managing how you fall. Overtime, the falls become smaller and smaller (think of an infant or toddler learning how to walk) until you are proficient at the given task. And, just like the infant, once you are proficient it is time to try something more difficult and unstable again (like jumping, spinning, doing a handstand, etc.). In fitness training we call this a progression, and the idea is simply that your training increases in complexity as you increase in your own ability. In short, your fitness training should evolve with you.