Gym Junk: Ditch the Machines and Get Fit


Boot camps and non-machine exercises are the gist of the New York Times Fitness Column for September 23, 2009.  The article notes the growing popularity of fitness boot camps and group training.  Frequent features of such classes are low-tech whole-body movements such as squatting, lunging, push-ups, pull-ups, jumping, running, crawling.  These are the movements of life.  Such movements are very effective for anyone wanting to improve not only their physique but also their ability to function in real life.  The emphasis here is on movement and not on individual muscles.  (Guess what, when you pull, you use your biceps, your back and shoulders.  When you push, you use your triceps and/or your chest, and/or your shoulders.  When you squat or lunge, you use your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.  There’s no need to think about all those little body parts when you move!)

In contrast, what do we typically see in gyms?  Oceans of chrome coated weight-stack contraptions designed to work individual body parts.  How do these machines work?  First, typically you sit or lay down.  (That’s nice and easy and very comfortable right?  It’s also a great way to conserve energy—which is exactly what you don’t want to do when you exercise.)  Then you have to figure out how to adjust any number of seats, back rests, chest rests, foot rests and/or handles.  Confusing stuff.  If you don’t adjust the machine properly then at a minimum you get a poor exercise; at worst you risk injury.  So after sitting or laying down, adjusting a bunch of confusing pieces you then get to move one body part in one plane of motion only.  Wow.  A big, heavy, complex machine and you get one little exercise out of it…  Meanwhile what does real life require of us?  We must bend, reach, pick up, put up, throw, catch, pull, push, climb and sometimes even crawl.  No gym machine really allows for much of this stuff.

In contrast, if you use your own trunk and limbs to run, lunge, crawl or climb—or if you get really wild and pick up a dumbbell, or a kettlebell, or a barbell, a medicine ball, a rock, a log, a sandbag, a chain or whatever in the world that’s heavy and just lying there—then a universe of movements is available to you.  These movements look a lot more like real life.  Through these types of movements the body is conditioned in an integrated fashion: arms working with legs and all of them working with the core while you stabilize yourself.  You’ll use more energy.  You won’t get the same workout twice and you’ll have a lot more fun.  The article’s writer says it well:

“While such rough-hewn techniques and gear may look old-fashioned, they comport with a modern shift away from developing individual muscle groups and toward so-called functional fitness, which refers to overall strength and comfort in performing everyday activities, like lifting, walking and reaching, along with cardiovascular health.”