Fixed Resistance Machines still have their Place.
The fitness industry has changed markedly since I began my career in 1998. Back then, the new 'health club' market was growing rapidly, and offered a more comfortable alternative to established leisure centres and traditional 'spit & sawdust' type gyms. This growth revolutionised the industry, and gave another choice to the many that may have been deterred by more intimidating or outdated facilities. Competing operators wooed members with such luxuries as saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and health-food oriented club rooms. Big companies took up corporate memberships as an additional perk for employees, who would switch their prawn mayo sandwiches for lunchtime spinning classes with their work buddies. Turnstiles were replaced with smiling receptionists handing out fine Egyptian cotton towels. It was a good time, and business boomed for the operators and those that supplied them.
One way in which gyms were revolutionised was in the equipment that adorned their fitness rooms. There was now a trend for a 'softer' look to distinguish health clubs from grittier gyms and the staler local authority leisure centres. This spawned a new breed of gym machines that were designed with both aesthetics and ease-of-use in mind: individual resistance machines were crafted for different muscles or muscle groups, and it would not be unusual to see upward of 50 on a gym floor. As time went on, the bio-mechanics on such machines really improved, and some of them felt great to use. Not only did the equipment look good, but it got over many of the safety issues that a big operator would face with heavy free-weights amongst a large and often inexperienced membership base. So a new, 'user-friendly' breed of gym had emerged, and this set the trend for a while.
But by the early 2000's, another revolution had taken hold though, and has now very much established itself in the modern gym environment. This was the rise of so called 'functional' training, and it's worth looking at what helped influence its appeal.
Prior to the emergence of the modern health club, gym & studio type exercise was popularised in some part by the fitness ambassadors we saw on TV, in videos or read in fitness magazines. These could be broadly split into two categories: Personalities such as Mr. Motivator and the Green Goddess, that appealed to the mainstream seeking to improve their general health and well-being; or bodybuilding idols like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mike Mentzer, who would appeal to those who wanted to build muscle and get stronger. Of course there were many others too, and we must not forget the legendary Jack LaLanne, who is known as the Godfather of Fitness, and inspired many Americans with his long running TV series, as well as accomplishing some amazing feats of strength and endurance. But with the ease that exercise machines allowed us to train without instruction, and the growing popularity of health clubs amongst the masses, a new breed of motivator was needed to inspire the latest generation of gym addicts: those that were becoming bored with the 'sit-and-push' routine of machines, but weren't attracted to other exercise trends like bodybuilding or studio based activities such as aerobics and yoga.
For these seasoned gym users, no longer was it enough to be just shown what to do, they now wanted to know the whys and the hows, and became interested in the science of exercise. Bodybuilding magazines were already there, but now the mainstream fitness press began to offer more detailed training plans that showed not just which areas of the body they worked, but how they worked too. Fitness professionals and clients alike would read the same magazines, much in the way they read popular online publications today - many of which feature some well qualified contributors. And with this new found interest came a resurgence in some of the more traditional forms of training, so gradually the gym floor began to change once more.
Helping to fuel this change were educators like Paul Chek, of who I was a big fan, who began to offer an exciting alternative to humdrum machine-based workouts, and this was like a red rag to a bull for any newly qualified trainer who longed to go beyond just adjusting seat heights and counting reps. Squat racks, lifting platforms, swiss balls, multi-cables, kettlebells, medicine balls.. the list goes on, soon started replacing some of the less essential gym machines, and Personal Trainers were having a ball. The emergence of CrossFit in the mid 2000's was really the pinnacle of this revolution, and was seen as the anti-establishment option for a new breed of aspiring fitness fanatics.
But despite this resurgence of the old school, the humble fixed resistance machine has remained a steadfast feature of most health clubs. The demand for a simple, sit and push type routine is clearly still present, and justifies the considerably larger investment compared to racks, plates and platforms. Some of the higher-end machines are now very well designed too, and offer superb ergonomics. And even as someone that was very much a supporter of the functional revolution, I believe firmly that many of these machines still have their place. Compound movements like the seated chest press, shoulder press, leg press, lat pulldown, and seated row are great ways to get those who are unaccustomed to exercise moving quickly and safely, and the disadvantages they have in terms of absolute functionality may not be significant for those just starting out.
For Personal Trainers though, machines are often seen as making our skills redundant, having progressed beyond the rank of just a Gym Instructor. But we should recognise that our skills as motivators are equally crucial as our skills as technicians, especially in the case of sedentary individuals who are new to exercise. We all love to coach complex movements to perfection, but it is easy to forget how overwhelming this can be for such clients. Effective motivation to get people moving is just as important given the current levels of obesity and low activity, regardless of the medium we use to achieve this. And machine based sessions don't just have to be successive sets from one piece of equipment to the next. HIIT routines that combine machines with more dynamic floor work can be fun and highly effective. And for bodybuilders, the utilisation of techniques such as drop sets and rest-pause are ideally suited to machines where there is minimal transition time from set to set.
So, when I have access to them, I will use machines in some of my sessions , especially for complete beginners. For such clients, weight lifting, and even some body-weight training, may be a bridge to far initially, and a waste of costly coaching time, especially if the main goal is weight loss, and the main function outside of the gym is sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day. In these cases, excessive body weight could well be at the heart of any mobility issues too, so addressing weight loss in an effective and time-efficient manner must also be the priority of the initial training plan - something for which resistance machines work very well when used in a circuit format. Ultimately, this will prove more beneficial than trying to force-feed advanced movements and mobility drills that just lead to more teaching time and less training time for the client. I will also use machines if clients are fatigued from lack of sleep, or just having a 'bad day'. as we all do from time to time. This way, a decent session can be performed without the necessary concentration required during more complex movements.
So don't be put off using fixed resistance machines just because what you read and see online seems to focus on other forms of training. Think about your training in relation to your goals. If these are simply to lose body fat, build some muscle or firm up a little, the right machines in the right programme can offer real benefits. And even legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger are fans of them, as you can read about here.