(Re)Defining Fitness – The Case Against Machines

Note: Part 1 of the Redefining Fitness series which talks about The Basic Capabilities of the human body can be found here.

The other day I walk into one of the 24 hour Fitness gyms and on the front door I see a sticker that says “The Truth About Fitness”. I open the door and I see like 50 elliptical machines and treadmils and steppers and other such shiny fancy equipment that honestly serve no purpose (other than giving people the false feeling of having worked out of course!). Even worse, every single one of these machines is occupied and I couldn’t help but brand these folks as ‘human hamsters’ – standing on a machine, watching TV, mindlessly doing something that is perceived as healthy. Nonsense!

I walk further in and I see an army of resistance training equipment. I’m talking pec dec, machine bench press, tricep extension, bicep curl, ab workout machines etc etc… and this time not only were the machines occupied, but there was a line for almost every machine! Gotto get that pump on ya know!

I scoot away from this jungle and at the end, near the restroom, in a 5 sq ft area with no light, I find one squat rack… one lonely squat rack. And guess what… the whole area around it was empty. Empty like there was a lion inside it!

I don’t get it! The squat rack IS the gym and yet people want to use everything but that! What is this obsession with flashy new equipment? How does this make any sense? A flashy phone… sure! But super clean equipment to help you get down dirty and sweaty? Really? That’s like having escalators at the gym! Oh wait…

What is fitness?

Fitness is the capability to do certain feats which you are already programmed to be able to do. Lifting loads, sprinting, covering distance by foot, jumping and contolling bodyweight are some of the most critical aspects of fitness and anyone interested in ‘general fitness’ should focus on these and possibly nothing more. Let me break this down.

Lifting loads:

You have an object. It has a certain weight. You need to lift it for some purpose.

How do you train for this? You find a object and learn to lift it in a way that is safe and a technique that allows you to exert the most force against the force applied by the object (i.e. it’s weight). This object can be a dumbbell or a barbell or a damn rock for all I care… but it has to be a free weight. A weight that is free to move/fall in the 3 dimensional space. Why? Because you need to be able to control the weight before attempting to move it. You know, learn to walk before you run kinda thing.

Sprinting:

You have something coming after you and you need to move away from your current physical position as fast as possible.

How do you train for this? Stand. Run as fast as you can for a certain distance or time. How much simpler can this get?

Covering distance by foot:

You are in point A. You need to get to point B.

How do you train for this? Move! Move at a comfortable pace such that you don’t crumble mid way. Done. And for all you runners, here is an awesome article that teaches you how to run.

Jumping:

You’re walking. There is a 20″ hurdle on the way. You need to get past it. You can jump over it or you can place your arms on it and climb it like you just turned 98 yesterday.

How do you train for this? Well, you jump. It is a basic human movement and teaching someone to jump is like teaching someone to talk. Don’t think. Just jump. You will teach yourself to do it.

Controlling Bodyweight:

Your body has many degrees of movement and the capability to move (and move loads) in all three planes. Using it’s own resistance to build muscle, strength, speed and power is possibly the most efficient way to train if fitness is your goal.

How do you train for this? Push-ups, pull-ups, squats, dips, planks and handstands. You don’t need anything more than this.

But you’re advanced! Don’t you need isolation exercises?

Well firstly, can you do 75+ pushups, 25+ pullups and 10+ pistol squats/leg? If you said no, then you are not advanced.

Secondly, no one with ‘fitness’ as a goal needs isolation exercises. If bodybuilding is your goal, then knock yourself out with 200 sets of isolation exercises… oh and don’t forget the steroids! And please don’t bother to read this blog anymore. Thanks.

Thirdly, check out what the top fitness coaches have to say about exercises to get strong and fast and fit.

So what’s my point?

In all of these training methods, do you see a single mention of a treadmill or elliptical or stepper? No! Why? Because machines are dumb. Flashy expensive machines are dumber! No exaggeration here – Gyms that advertise they have brand new state-of-the-art cardio machines are bascially scamming you. Why? Well, if they tell you its better to train without machines, why would you come in to the gym?

In any point of your life, have you ever had to move a load which has a pre-set fixed movement plane? No! Sitting on a piece of equipment that helps you direct force in a fixed plane of motion WILL NOT get you fit. Such exercises will strengthen specific muscles, sure, but will end up creating imbalances!

You see, your body is meant to work in harmony. When you squat, for example, you flex and extend your hip joint, knee joint and your ankle joint. But if you replace the squat with a leg extension, you only flex and extend your knee joint. So while your quads get worked, the muscles in your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back musculature etc) and the muscle attached to your ankle (soleus, gastrocnemius, anterior tibialis etc.) will remain weak. You don’t want to be the guy with big thighs who hurt his lower back when lifting a suitcase! Same deal with the pec-dec. Strong pecs but weak shoulder muscles resulting in almost certain injury when loaded. You don’t want to be that guy with a big chest who hurt his shoulder when attempting to lift his son overhead!

Summary:

And now that you’ve read this, feel free to laugh your ass off everytime you read “We have brand new blah blah equipment made by blah blah” in a gym’s website!

Peace out!

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22 responses to “(Re)Defining Fitness – The Case Against Machines

  1. Divya April 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Awesome post! Totally loved the suitcase and steroids lines!

  2. Smita April 6, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    Good point: stay away from the shiny equipment! The picture of the escalator at the gym reminds me of people trying to find a parking spot closest to the gym entrance 🙂

  3. Lavanya April 7, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Talk about a picture that speaks a 1000 words!

  4. Dan Tirabassi April 7, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Great post!

    “Machines are dumb” – awesome!

  5. Arvind Ashok April 7, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Neat! Beat me to the punch 🙂

  6. Yogini April 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Awesome post for a person like me who is definitely not a gym rat 🙂 Quite a punch, Raj!

  7. Murali April 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    To think of all the Talwalkars outlets in India advertising the shiny ‘imported’ machines as the no.1 reason you should join them. The outlet i visited didn’t even have a decent pull-up bar.
    This post is great. You could get a LOT fitter (and lose weight if you want) by working out at home than working out in a gym.

    • RG April 15, 2011 at 9:53 am

      “You could get a LOT fitter (and lose weight if you want) by working out at home than working out in a gym.”

      This!

  8. Mika April 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    me and my friend had our babies about a year ago. She regularly went to gym and dieted while i was being lazy. i just played w/ my baby and breastfed him. it took me a while but i lost most of my pregnancy weight while she is still struggling with the last 10 pds. i am not sure why but i think most of my “workout” were fun and natural hers was boring and unnatural. by the way she was also breastfeeding her baby . what do you think

    • RG April 15, 2011 at 9:52 am

      It’s hard to say without knowing what exactly she ate, what her stress levels were and what her genetic type is. But chances are she went on a calorie restricted diet and high cardio program which encouraged fat storage.

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  13. Tony June 5, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Hi, I found browsing and reading your articles interesting and you’re certainly right about the squat rack being king! What I do take issue with though is your stereotype of bodybuilders as steroid junkies; there’re many natural bodybuilders like myself who put in a lot of hard work and are vastly experienced, you do yourself an injustice by your prejudiced statement in an otherwise enlightening website! ” People who make generalisations are generally stupid”. Let’s all be aware also that there’re steroid users in athletics, football, cycling etc etc.
    So in future please stick with publishing the intelligent content that I already admire you for and avoid making the arrogant slip-ups!

    Thanks

  14. Alicia @ best adjustable dumbbells August 3, 2011 at 11:33 am

    You can always do your workout routine at home. Time saving and less hassle than going to the gym.

    Good point, you rally don’t have to go to the gym to stay fit.

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