New Rule 7 Dont do the machines

I've had this conversation so many times I've lost track. A man or woman says to me, "I'm not getting anything out of my workouts." I ask what they're doing. He or she will say, "I do the machines."

"The machines" is a reference to the circuit of devices designed to work all the muscles in isolated safety. In a basic gym, you might find . ..

• four leg machines (leg extension, leg curl, leg press, calf raise)

• three pushing machines (shoulder press, chest press, triceps pushdown)

• four pulling machines (lat pulldown, some kind of horizontal row, pullover, biceps curl)

• two middle-body machines (some kind of crunch for your abdominals, some kind of back extension for your lower back and gluteals)

You might also find a machine for twisting at the waist, along with a "pec deck" for working your chest and a lateral-raise machine for your shoulders.

Notice what's missing from this list: None of these machines comes within spitting distance of mimicking the squat. (The leg press is thought to, but doesn't; see "Exercises We Hate #1" on page 32.) The leg extension and leg curl condition muscles, but they don't imitate any movements that are actually useful in real life. (Not an issue with bodybuilders, of course, but a big problem for everyone else.)

Only one movement—the back extension—imitates the deadlift. And we like the back extension, as long as you do it on the device known as a Roman chair, as opposed to the weight-stack machine, which is dangerous. (See "Exercises We Hate #2" on page 33.) But it's not the same as picking up a weight off the floor. None comes close to the lunge.

The pulling exercises aren't horrible. In fact, they're the best, most useful machines in the gym, and they're the only machines that actually improve on what you


Bad Press

The exercise: 45-degree leg press

How it works: You load up the leg-press apparatus with hundreds of pounds of weights, then set yourself in the machine with your back against a pad and your feet on a platform. You push the platform until your legs are straight, then lower it again. Ideally, you start and end each repetition with your knees bent 90 degrees. In reality, many lifters go deeper, which causes their hips to come up off the pad, rounding the lower back.

Why we hate it:

1. It's a completely nonfunctional movement. It's hard to think of a real-life action in which your back is anchored and you push out with your feet to move a heavy object.

2. It's sneakily dangerous. Once your hips come off the pad, you're putting your lower back in jeopardy, according to Stuart McGill, **, in his book Low Back Disorders.

3. It's too damned easy. Bodybuilders love this exercise because they can load up the machine with half the plates in the gym (it's not unusual, in a hard-core gym, to see guys leg-pressing more than 1,000 pounds for reps). But if any of these guys could squat even half of that, I'd be surprised. So you get the worst of several worlds: You get to lift a whole lot of weight without actually accomplishing anything.

4. Most guys will hold their breath as they're lowering the weights, which, given the fact your legs are coming up toward your chest, almost certainly means you're creating an off-the-charts surge in blood pressure.

What to do instead: A squat offers all the benefits but a fraction of the dangers. If, because of preexisting lower-back problems, you can't do squats safely, McGill recommends doing leg presses with just one leg, leaving the other foot on the floor. That will keep your back from coming off the pad. But McGill adds this: "We still consider this a nonfunctional motor/motion pattern."

can do with free weights, to a point. (You'll find lots of pulling and twisting exercises in Alwyn's workouts that use cable machines.)

But the pushing moves are a disaster. Shoulder-press and chest-press machines don't allow your shoulders to choose their own range of motion. Even worse, they're built with the premise that both your shoulders have the exact same mechanics. The odds that they do are about zero—one shoulder is usually a little wider than the other, if not torqued or twisted so it's higher, lower, forward, or behind the other. Pushing a fixed bar through a fixed range of motion is ridiculously risky for most lifters.

Then there's that crunch machine or, more accurately, the trunk-curl machine.


Disc Hole Inferno

The exercise: machine back extension

How it works: You strap yourself into the machine, bend forward so your spine is rounded, then push backward against a pad until your back is arched.

Why we hate it: The machine exerts a compressing force on your spinal discs while you're extending backward. In Low Back Disorders, McGill describes the exercise as "the easiest way to ensure herniation" of a disc. A few sets probably won't do any damage, but the heavier the load you use, the fewer sets and reps it takes to make a disc go boom.

What to do instead: McGill's studies have shown that the key to lower-back health is muscular endurance, not strength or flexibility. So if you have a healthy back, and do the exercises Alwyn has chosen for New Rules, you'll develop endurance. That's because exercises requiring balance and coordination force the small, strut-like muscles in your lower back to work hard to keep you upright.

Would you believe me if I told you that this movement is worthless? Of all your abdominal muscles, the one targeted by the crunch—the rectus abdominis, better known as the six-pack—is functionally the least important. It has almost no role in protecting your spine, although it is involved in integrated actions with the other abdominal muscles in sports and other dynamic movements. And I'll concede that no abdominal exercise truly isolates one set of muscles, so even a crunch works more than your six-pack. But if you try to justify the crunch in terms of human function, it's hard to make a case. Your body has hardly any need to bend forward at the waist while your lower body is anchored. (There are exceptions. If you combine the crunch with another type of movement, such as throwing a ball, or a balancing component, it becomes a much more interesting and useful exercise. Alwyn has a few you'll enjoy trying.)

Again, our case against machines will proceed throughout New Rules on a case-by-case basis. For now, I want to emphasize two points.

1. Many machines force your joints into unnatural ranges of motion, creating damage that may take years of treatment to repair.

2. Most machines prevent your body from doing the most important and useful muscle-building movements.

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