Machines Vs. Free Weights

If you’ve been an avid  gym exerciser for at least couple of years, then you must be familiar with the ongoing debate between free weights and machines. It is one of the most heated and polarizing topics in the fitness with so many biased opinions. When I was growing up, the older guys I lifted with made me use free weights and told me never to use machines. They demeaned machines saying it was for the weak and lazy. So many case studies over the years concluded that free weights are advantageous over machines when it comes to maximal strength, bone density, fat loss and muscle mass.

So machines are useless and should be extinct right?

Well, not necessarily. It’s scientifically true that training with free weights (barbells, dumbbells, body weight, etc) have more benefits than machines. The proof is in the pudding : Increased range of motion, development of maximal strength, best potential for hypertrophy, stronger bones due to increased tension and building maximal power are some of the great benefits of using free weights. An overwhelming part of my workout programs and that of my clients are centered around free weights. I’m a firm believer in them.

However, machines also have their benefits and can be incorporated into workout programs. Certain people may also benefit a great deal from machines. It is important to identify the fitness goal at hand and the training level of the individual when utilizing machines. While the use of machines will never be as popular as that of free weights, they can still be used in some capacity.

Here are  3 ways machines can be used:

1. Sedentary & De-Conditioned Individuals: These are people so inactive that walking up a flight of stairs can be a daunting task. Sedentary and de-conditioned individuals have little to no muscular strength and endurance. Their muscles are so weak and tendons very wound up. For these reasons, these people are better off starting off with machines, where there is easier range of motion and controlled directional force. As the body adapts over time, free weights should be used.

2. Isolating Muscle Groups: When it comes to lean mass, free weights is the undisputed king. No question about it. However certain small muscle groups may benefit a great deal from the use of machines. Small muscles like the gluteus minimus and medius, anterior deltoid, biceps and calf muscles can be individually targeted through the use of machines for better definition. Keep in mind, these muscles should already be activated via compound movements before being isolated for better accentuation. Examples are the hip abduction (gluteus minimus and medius) and seated shoulder press (anterior deltoid) machines.

3. De-Loading: The term ‘de-load‘ refers to lowering the intensity and volume of training for a period of time. It basically means, taking some ‘load’ off your current workload. Though not set in stone, de-load phases typically occur following 3 to 4 weeks of moderate to intense training and can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days. During this phase, a free weight exerciser can use machines to lighten and lower his/her workload. It’s basically a way of giving the body a break while still training it at a decreased intensity.

Remember, I’m not advocating the notion that machines are better than free weights. Both are effective and impactful for muscular strength, lean muscle, fat loss, increased bone density and decreased LDL. However, machines do offer some advantages that could benefit certain individuals. In my humble estimation, they should be routinely performed providing the fitness goals at hand are being addressed properly.

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Rapid Fire : Installment 3

I’d like to dedicate this week’s blog to the youthful and exuberant Diana Gasperoni, who provided me with the inspiration and idea for some of the topics of interest. Nutrition, avoiding female infertility and fixing iliotibial band syndrome are explored in this third installment of Rapid Fire.

Making healthy eating choices will continue to be a challenge for many of us and a struggle for some. It’s a never-ending battle that we must embrace courageously to avoid mistakes. Certain dietary behaviors could impact female infertility. Learn exactly what and what not to eat to be able to conceive. If you’re a runner, you most likely have had IT-Band syndrome at some point. As painful as it can be, there are simple ways to fix it.

1. Don’t Get On A ‘DIET’: We’ve all heard and seen them before: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, and so on. These are some of the commercial diet plans aimed at promoting weight loss. Now many people, including some of my colleagues in the industry, will disagree with me but in my humble and professional estimation, diet plans are a waste of time. They are just another clever gimmick with the sole purpose of collecting money from the public. Now, don’t get me wrong, they can certainly help an individual trying to lose weight, providing that person is also physically active. But losing weight isn’t rocket science nor is it complicated. It requires a simple solution : calories burned must exceed calories consumed. 3,500 calories is needed to get burned for 1 pound of fat to get shed. So for example, in order to lose 2 pounds of fat, you’ll need a caloric deficit of 7,000 pounds.

It’s been ideally concluded that 4 pounds of fat is the most a person can lose in a week. Anything more is most likely water weight which will return to the body once fluids are consumed again. This is how those diet programs capture the audience, promising absurd amounts of shed pounds in a week. Remember, muscle, water, fat and bone make up the body weight. The best way to stay lean and lose weight is to exercise regularly (aerobic and anaerobic training) and eat small meals frequently (5 to 6 a day). This will help continued growth of lean tissue which leads to faster metabolism. So don’t ‘get on’ a diet. Just eat a clean diet. For more on diet and nutrition, read this blog post I wrote a while back.

2. Avoid Female Infertility Through Nutrition: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the infertility rate amongst married women aged 15 to 44 in the country dropped from 8.5 percent to 6 percent between 1982 and 2010. But an alarming 1.5 million women were considered infertile at some point between 2006 and 2010. Though advanced medical treatments have become available over the years, simply eating the right meals and avoiding some is the only remedy needed to avoid infertility.  According to the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), insulin insensitivity is a major reason for infertility. When insulin is released into the bloodstream, it affects the liver and encourages production of androgen. This results in circulation of testosterone which prevents the release of an egg from an ovary.

To promote insulin sensitivity, the ENC recommends consuming fiber-rich carbohydrates. These meals are slowly metabolized and do not spike insulin in the bloodstream. Low-glycemic index (GI) meals such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole-grains are the ideal food sources for women looking to get pregnant. While High-glycemix index meals like rice and pasta are great for post-workout when the body is craving simple sugars, they should be avoided or consumed in very small portions when trying to get pregnant. Additionally, the ENC also recommends a multivitamin (specifically folic acid and iron) and dairy products as ways to optimize female fertility.

3.  Simple Remedy For Iliotibial Band Syndrome: Running is one of the most common and simplest aerobic activity. But too much running, especially amongst long-distance runners and triathletes, can lead to a condition called Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS). This occurs when the IT-Band constantly rubs over the lateral femoral epicondyle  along with continuous flexion and extension of the knee. The inflammation affects the lateral side of the knee and can be very uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable while running. Although the pain goes away once running is discontinued, it arises again during another run.

Here are a few exercises that can help in rehabilitating ITBS:

  • Standing Hip Abduction :

Make sure your torso remains tall and straight and do not compensate by tilting your torso.

  • Box Step Down :

Make sure the spine is neutral and that the hip, knee and heel are aligned.

  • IT-Band Stretches and Foam Rolling : Any IT-Band Stretch should be held statically for 15-30 seconds and repeated no more than 3 times. Foam rolling can last up to 5 minutes.
  • High Plank : This is basically a plank with your hands fully extended, as opposed to resting on your forearms. Aim to do 3 sets of 20 to 180 seconds resting 20 seconds between sets.

4 Popular Exercises With Progressions For Better Gains

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging. In that blog I mentioned increasing volume, decreasing rest periods and changing the sequence of your workouts as some of the ways to achieve that feat. In this week’s blog, I’m going to dig deeper and show you how to make some of your favorite exercises more challenging.

So many popular gym exercises need to be fine-tuned every now and then to yield more bang-for-your-buck gains and to avoid boredom and monotony. If you’re an avid exerciser who works out at least 3 days a week, chances are you get complacent with your workouts regularly. It’s inevitable, even if you’re the strongest and most conditioned person at your local gym. The fact of the matter is the body needs continual challenges for continued upward progressions.

Here are 4 popular gym exercises that can be progressed to a greater degree of difficulty:

1. TRX Push-Up: Suspension training has completely taken the fitness industry by storm and has become an essential part of all exercise programs. The TRX Suspension Trainer is by far the most popular and most utilized amongst fitness enthusiasts. The Push-Up is arguably the most common exercise done with this exercise accessory tool.

The Challenge : TRX Decline Push-Up: Place a plyo box or aerobic step (knee-height high) 4 to 6 feet in front of a fully extended hanging TRX. Assume a decline stance by placing your feet on the box as you simultaneously reach for the handles with your hands. Perform decline push-ups. The extra elevation will force your anterior core to work harder due to increased contraction via anti-extension. Your pecs will also get a deeper stretch at the bottom of this movement. This is a very advanced movement so you must be able to perform regular TRX Push-ups before attempting this.

2. Hip Abduction Machine: A very popular exercise machine that works the glutes and used mostly by women who regularly work out at gyms. Although it’s not a ‘women-only’ exercise, majority of its users are women who are in relentless pursuit of a nicely, shaped butt. The term ‘hip abduction’ is a joint action that uses the gluteus minimus and medius, the muscles on the side of your butt.

The Challenge : Partial Squat On Hip Abduction Machine: Place your feet on the foot cradles on the hip abduction machine but do not sit. Instead drop down to a partial squat and perform the movement. The isometric squat stance will bring your, gluteus maximus, quadriceps and hamstrings into play, which you wouldn’t get sitting down. The added external rotation of the hip will force your gluteus minimus and medius to work harder also. You should try to achieve a considerable isometric squat stance to reap the full benefits.

3. Deadlift: I’ve talked about this exercise in many of my blogs so I’ll keep this short. The Deadlift is one of the important compound movements for building strength, power, fat burn, lean muscle and improving posture.

The Challenge : Deadlift With Strength Bands: For those unfamiliar with strength bands, they’re basically rubber bands in larger sizes and with greater tension. They are mostly used by elite athletes and powerlifters but can be incorporated into just about any workout program. Place a medium or heavy strength band over the middle of an olympic barbell. Step on the part of the band that’s resting on the floor with a hip width stance. The band should be right on the arches of your feet. Place your hands on the barbell, just outside the 2 points where the band is over the barbell. Explosively drive through your feet and deadlift. The tension from the band will constantly try to pull you down during both the concentric and eccentric phases. This forces the use of more power, force and speed which will yield more calories burned, improved strength and size. The tension of the strength bands is the key to achieving these benefits so the weight on the barbell should be kept to a minimum.

4. Reverse Lunge: The most knee-friendly of all lunges, the reverse lunge is the only lunge variation I do these days. We all know it isolates the muscles of the butt and thigh but it also stretches the hip flexor at the bottom of the movement. If you have back and/or knee pain, this exercise is ideal for you!

The Challenge : Reverse Lunge With Front Squat Grip: This is highly advanced progression that should be done with caution. You must know how to do a barbell front squat before attempting this. Using fairly light load, assume a barbell front squat stance in a squat rack. With the barbell resting on your fingers or shoulders (depending on the grip you use), do alternating reverse lunges. Because the center of gravity is being moved upward, farther away from the base of support, the balance challenge becomes much more difficult. The anterior core is engaged a great deal that you literally will feel a ‘burn’ in your abs while doing this movement. You’re going to wobble every now and then so be very slow and controlled on your decent.