Thanks to the popularity of high-intensity exercise programs, many fitness centers are changing their equipment offerings and creating space for high-intensity conditioning programs. Likewise many personal trainers now make exercises like barbell deadlifts, sled pushes, Turkish get-ups, overhead presses and kettlebell swings standard components of clients’ workout programs. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the sight of a huge tire, the shape of a kettlebell, the sound of a barbell dropping on a platform or the noise of a heavy rope slamming against the ground could be intimidating to the novice exerciser.
It’s also important to consider whether high-intensity workouts are appropriate for someone who is just starting to exercise. While there is a ton of evidence supporting the benefits of high-intensity exercise for clients of all skill levels, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for every single person walking into a gym. Now, you might argue that using full body exercises is more functional and helps clients prepare for challenges they may face in their daily lives. Your primary role as a trainer, however, is to not only give clients a workout for the day, but to help them learn how to make physical activity a regular part of their daily lives.
I used to define myself as a “functional trainer” and took pride in creating a variety of movement-based exercise programs. A number of years ago I attended a lecture given by strength coach Mike Boyle, author of the book Functional Training for Sports. He described functional training as training with a purpose, and asserted that challenging exercises may provide a variety of benefits, but if the exercises don’t address a client’s specific interests, or if the client is uncomfortable doing the exercises separate from the trainer, are they truly functional?
In other words, you need to consider the needs of your clients and eliminate the tendency to use the types of workouts you enjoy. Even though I like using barbells and kettlebells for my personal workouts, when it comes to exercising on their own many of my clients are more comfortable using weightlifting machines. More importantly, machines can help clients become stronger while establishing the healthy behaviors necessary to make exercise a consistent part of their daily routines.
Strength training provides a number of benefits and the primary feature of machines is that they use cams and pulleys to place the greatest amount of resistance at the point where a particular muscle is in its strongest position, thus helping that muscle to develop to its fullest potential. If the goal of an exercise program is to create large, well-defined muscles, machine training can be an extremely functional way to achieve that outcome.
Here are six benefits of machine-based training that can help you reconsider whether it’s worthwhile adding them to your clients’ programs.
1. Controlling mechanical overload and path of motion
Mechanical overload is the amount of physical force placed on a muscle and is essential for stimulating muscle growth. Compound barbell lifts require optimal range-of-motion from a number of joints. If one of those joints does not function properly, it could cause an injury. Because exercise machines control the path of motion and place the greatest amount of force where a muscle is the strongest, it can be a safe way to apply the overload necessary to stimulate muscle growth.
There are two components of muscle: the elastic component of fascia and the connective tissue responsible for providing shape and transmitting forces from one section of muscle to another, and the contractile element of the actin and myosin protein filaments responsible for controlling muscle contractions. Improving muscle size and strength requires using external resistance to stimulate the contractile element to become capable of generating higher levels of force. Machine training can be extremely effective for achieving this outcome.
3. Creating metabolic overload
Metabolic overload occurs when a muscle is required to work to a point of momentary fatigue and does not have the energy to generate another contraction. Muscle growth occurs either as a result of mechanical or metabolic overload. A long-time bodybuilding secret for achieving rapid muscle growth is the use of drop sets, which involves doing an exercise to the point of momentary fatigue, immediately lowering (dropping) the weight, and then continuing to the next point of exhaustion. Machines provide the safest and most time-efficient means of being able to perform drop sets to the point of complete fatigue, which ensures that all fibers in a particular muscle have been engaged.
4. Time-efficient solution for circuit training
Circuit training requires transitioning from one exercise to another with a minimal amount of rest and can be effective for creating both a mechanical and metabolic overload for your clients. You might design circuits featuring barbells, kettlebells and weight sleds and encourage your clients to work to the point of fatigue. However, it can be intimidating for clients to use this equipment on their own. The solution is to design a machine-based circuit for your clients to follow when you’re not working directly with you, which allows them to experience the benefits of circuit training without the need to know how to properly use advanced equipment.
5. Focus on developing definition in specific muscles
In addition to the many health benefits of strength training, including improved metabolic efficiency, enhanced neuromuscular coordination or stronger muscles, many clients simply want to look better. Muscle definition is the result of a muscle remaining in a state of semi-contraction. Machines are designed to create mechanical overload in a specific muscle, which means they can help improve definition in that muscle. One unique programming strategy is to do a compound, multijoint exercise (e.g., a barbell squat) followed immediately by a muscle-isolation exercise (e.g., a machine-based hamstring curl) to continue using a specific muscle to the point of fatigue, which results in greater definition.
When used properly, free-weight equipment like barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls can be extremely effective. However, if an individual lacks a base level of strength or basic movement skills, using this equipment could increase the risk of injury. Even if an individual is strong, the ego is sometimes stronger, causing him to lift a weight that is heavier than his existing level of strength. While overloading a barbell for a squat or bench press could cause serious injury, machines allow a user to lift with maximal loads with a minimal risk of injury from falling weights.
The role of a personal trainer is to help clients live healthier lives. If we design exercise programs that are so challenging that our clients don’t feel comfortable working out on their own then we our failing in our mission. While I still design challenging barbell and kettlebell workouts for when I am working directly with a client, I now take the time to also develop a machine-based exercise program that the client can use on those days when we don’t meet or when he or she may be traveling out of town.
Don’t get stuck in the trap of training your clients like you train yourself. You can design the best program in the world, but if the client doesn’t feel comfortable doing it when you’re not there, you’re doing them a major disservice. Opening up my way of thinking to appreciate the benefits of old-school exercise machines has helped me deliver solutions that meet my clients needs and that is the true definition functional training.