Gym equipment has come along way in the past ten years, modern gyms have machines to work every
muscle you can think of (and many you probably haven’t heard of before!) But do we benefit from
working muscles in this way?
Playing a sport encourages the integration of the whole organism because it is necessary to think
as we move and plan ahead. In performing each movement in response to the run of play, we use mechanisms that nature evolved for the purpose of survival in a hostile world. Sport is today’s equivalent of the hunting, fighting and avoidance of predators that kept our ancestors alive. The skills developed in our past are essential in today’s sport; accuracy, speed, strength and intelligence are all requirements for success.
Movement, Muscles & Machines
We have come to believe that the stronger a muscle the better, without a thought to what we actually do with a stronger muscle. I am not advocating we should do nothing, or that all exercise is harmful. The important issue is why we exercise and what is it we hope to achieve? If we want to get fit, ask the question – fit for what? If you want to develop your muscles using gym equipment -
what do you need the strength for? When did you last review your objectives for devoting so much time and effort to its pursuit?
To help achieve optimum performance it is useful to understand the physiology involved so you do not misuse your body. All movement, even of the smallest part, involves the total organism yet many exercise systems fail to recognise the integral nature of human function. Exercises have always been designed to achieve specific improvements for one part of the body in the belief it will
benefit the athlete for the particular demands of their sport. My view is that the concentration on individual parts whilst performing these exercises destroys the unity of the organism necessary for good movement.
Getting into shape usually involves a trip to the local gymnasium with its staggering array of specialist gym equipment. A combination of technology and clever marketing has transformed the dull exercise machine into an essential piece of equipment capable of achieving miracles. Today’s machines have made it possible to work individual muscles in isolation – the first-time gym user
will often joke they ache in muscles they did not know existed. Unfortunately, in the rush to develop the ultimate range of gym equipment, I believe a vital factor in human development and movement has been overlooked. That is, no single movement involves either an individual or isolated set of muscles! Gym equipment that work a muscle whilst immobilising or supporting part of the
body, encourage ‘unnatural’ actions never to be repeated outside the gymnasium, sports scientist Dr
Mel Siff wrote: -
“….it is well known in physiology that the body knows of actions, not muscles, so that it is inappropriate to place any intentional stress on individual muscles rather than on the desired motor patterns.”
Even the harmless looking treadmill does not replicate natural activity. Running on a moving surface employs a different combination of muscles when compared with road running. Chuck Wolf, the director of sport science and human performance for the U.S.A. Triathlon National Training Center
in Florida acknowledges this problem with the exercise machine saying,
“… our love of machines has caused us to lose sight of the way the body functions. Machines are ideal for multiple repetitions of the same movement patterns along a single plane. Unfortunately, that’s not how we move.”
This is not to say that using gym equipment is harmful – far from it! It is how we approach the use of these machines that is vital. They do offer an opportunity to develop body awareness and strength but the temptation is to focus on the specific muscle being exercised whilst ignoring how the whole body can be used. For example, it is common to see people gritting teeth, straining neck
muscles and arching their back when using gym equipment to work the biceps. All this unnecessary action is not going to help build the biceps but it will develop poor muscular habits that will affect other activities. If used with the total body in mind these exercises will develop every other muscle appropriately as they are needed to stabilise the frame. So rather than looking to build the abs, biceps and quads separately, be aware of their involvement on every machine.
So perhaps to get the best from using gym equipment we should take our time to use the machines with total awareness of the actions involved (avoiding distractions such as the gym TV or listen to music ). And perhaps ask whether the action encouraged by the machine is a ‘natural’ one. Will I ever be hanging at an angle where I need to perform a sit-up? It may strengthen the abdominals for that movement, but do I need it? How will it benefit my body as a whole?