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More Gyms Are Junking Weight Machines. But Should They?

Many gyms are getting rid of certain machines, like shoulder press machines. WBUR's Carey Goldberg isn't happy about that. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Many gyms are getting rid of certain machines, like shoulder press machines. WBUR's Carey Goldberg isn't happy about that. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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It was bad enough that my gym stopped showing movies on the giant screens facing the cardio machines. Now, instead of being transported from our ellipticals to outer space or Victorian England, we're slimed by the ugly politics on the news.

But the gym also got rid of three machines: the shoulder press, the sitting ab machine and the sitting back machine — gym classics used for decades. They were "dated," the manager told me, and underused; the simple weight benches and squat station that replaced them are sure to be more popular.

Certainly, this is the era of "functional fitness." From CrossFit to TRX to kettlebells, functional workouts are on the rise, promoting "body-weight" exercises like squats and push-ups, unstable surfaces and complex movements that mimic those we need for everyday life.

This year's list of top fitness trends includes body-weight training and functional fitness, defined by the American College of Sports Medicine "as using strength training to improve balance, coordination, force, power, and endurance to enhance someone’s ability to perform activities of daily living."

I'm all for workouts that help us live our lives. But must my trusty machines be put out to pasture? And it's not just my gym — health clubs around the country have been retiring more of their machines lately, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal headlined "Gyms Ditch Machines To Make Space For Free Weights."

Clearly, these are business decisions, responding to expected demand. But are we, the gym members, likely to be physiologically better off with fewer machines?

I got a resounding "no" from Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Quincy College and author of more than two dozen textbooks. "It's so simple to train muscles, and people are trying to make it so complex," he said.

"Our studies have shown that the basic exercises" — like leg or shoulder presses on machines — "improve function as well as anything else you can do, and actually quite a bit better," he said. "We know this from the studies we've done in nursing homes where we've actually rated the functionality of the nursing home residents."

In his latest study, Westcott looked at 45 subjects who worked out on strength machines and got aerobic exercise twice a week as part of a post-diet weight maintenance plan. It found the program effective at keeping the weight off and protecting the subjects' muscle mass from the shrinkage a diet typically causes.

Eschewing machines in fitness is like 'telling a carpenter, just use a saw and a hammer. You don't need the saber saw.'

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD

Machines target major muscles in ways that strengthen them for all movements, Westcott argues. Take the back machine that my gym did away with: "The lower back machine is the best possible exercise for strengthening the lower-back muscles," he said. "It puts it through the full range of motion, hopefully with the appropriate strength curve. Nothing does that better in a progressive way, where you can add a little bit of resistance as you become stronger."

Similarly, he said, the shoulder machine and the ab machine should not be spurned. "Any machine that moves a muscle to its full range, with an appropriate strength curve, with appropriate resistance, is the best possible way to condition that muscle, to make it stronger," he said. "And once you condition the muscle, it is stronger in any movement you want to make."

Westcott is by no means against squats or push-ups or any of the staples of functional fitness-style boot camps, he said — only against the trend among many trainers to diss machines.

I heard similar sentiments from Brad Schoenfeld, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College in the Bronx, and another leading expert who has a Ph.D. rather than a personal trainer certification.

"That's one of my hobby-horse topics," he said when I asked him for a reality check on whether getting rid of weight machines makes sense.

"Functional fitness" has become a "bastardized term" in the fitness field, he said, used to sell services and create a buzz: "It sounds very science-y, and it's the type of thing that allows personal trainers to market themselves better, and there's very little science behind it."

In a 2012 paper, Schoenfeld wrote that training should not be "an either/or decision" between functional exercises and "single-joint" exercises on machines. The two synergize, he argued.

"What's most important to the average person? It's strength, and strength is highly functional," he said in a phone interview. "You're looking to pick up your children, pick up packages, move furniture — machines are going to help you increase your strength, and that's going to transfer into functional capacity.

"For most people, there's an additive effect of combining machines" with functional fitness moves, he said. "It's not one or the other, which is a myopic way of looking at it."

Machines, with their limited range of motion, are often easier to learn and use than "functional" moves, Schoenfeld said. The machines do tend to focus more on specific muscles, and involve fewer stabilizer muscles, but that can be a plus if you need that targeting.

He offered examples of exercisers who might particularly benefit from machines:

• If you're elderly, lack coordination or have lower-back issues, you'll tend to do better with, say, a leg press machine than a squat.

• If you're newly out of physical therapy and need to carefully limit range of motion.

•  If you're a bodybuilder looking to develop a particular muscle.

•  If you're an athlete who's trying to correct a muscle imbalance — say, weak quadriceps — you can target them with a leg-extension machine better than with a squat that would work other muscles as well. Similarly, he said, research showed that a hamstring curl on a machine targets the lower hamstrings better than the free-weight move, a stiff-legged dead lift.

Ultimately, Schoenfeld said, eschewing machines in fitness is like "telling a carpenter, 'Just use a saw and a hammer. You don't need the saber saw.' Or telling a painter to limit the colors on a palette.

"The more tools you have at your disposal, the more you can tailor your programs to the individual," he said.

Of course, he allowed, some individuals may favor only CrossFit-style training using no machines. "But that doesn't make that the way to go," he said. "That's a preference. To make this into a research-based thing, where they're claiming there's some science behind it, is just silly because there's not."

Schoenfeld also countered the "caveman" argument he heard from one fitness manager: that cavemen didn't have weight machines. They didn't have air conditioning or cars either, he riposted, then took a few minutes to explain the science on the benefits of machines.

"Lo and behold, a week later, all the machines were out of the closet," he recalled.

Tony Maloney, fitness center manager at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, touts the benefits of functional fitness — its "patterns of movement" and "three-dimensional planes of motion." But he, too, recommends combining functional fitness with machines.

"One day, you're doing four or five exercises you like on the machines, and on an opposite day, do something that's more body-weight or functional-training related," he said. "So there's a balance."

Of course it's easier to strike a balance when, like Maloney, you run a fantasy fitness center in Indianapolis that measures 65,000 square feet. That's plenty of room for rows of machines and functional-fitness space. The real either-or is the zero sum of limited space.

But for those of us who miss our machines, there are indications the trend pendulum may be swinging back toward them. In 2016, Self Magazine published "Here's Why You Don't Need To Use Weight Machines At The Gym."

This year, it was "Yes, Weight Machines Can Absolutely Have A Place In Your Fitness Routine."

Readers, are you missing a machine? Or do you want them all gone?  

Related:

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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