Machine Power

evolved significantly. Depending on the gym you join, you're liable to be confronted by a variety of contraptions: BodyMaster, Cybex, Icarian, Hammer Strength, Nautilus, and a variety of others with equally important names. Which is best, and what should you use when? Here's a sound question you may be pondering: "If three different machines all work the chest, why does the gym offer three different machines?" Actually, we have no idea. (Just kidding.) While most of the machines use stacks of weights to provide resistance, brands like Keiser use hydraulic resistance. LifeFitness has machines that use magnetic braking for resistance and are harder in one direction than in the other. Others like Nautilus vary the resistance throughout the range of motion while still other machines have constant resistance.

Sound question number two: "Which is best?" Deidre and Joe have had the "privilege" of listening to Jonathan's unabridged lecture on the theoretical pros and cons of different types of equipment. If at the end of three scintillating hours you're still conscious, he'll excitedly conclude that there's really not much difference at all. Huh?

The bottom line is that your muscles don't really have a discerning intelligence. In other words, a biceps doesn't know whether air pressure, a weight stack, a metal plate, or a side of beef is strapped to your wrist. It knows that there's a task to accomplish and recruits as many muscle fibers as necessary to get the job done. As long as the machine you sidled up to offers enough resistance and can be adjusted to fit your body, you'll be adequately challenged. (By appropriate resistance we mean that the heaviest weight isn't too light and the lightest weight isn't too heavy.)

With most machines, a weight stack provides the resistance. The amount of weight is adjusted by inserting a pin in the stack. In some cases, smaller "fractional" plates can be piled on top of the stack to allow you to make more gradual increases.

Here are some of the pluses of using machines:

> Safety. If you're on your sixth rep (or repetition) in your second set and unable to complete a seventh, you simply lower the weight to its starting position. There's no need for a spotter and no risk of dropping the weight on your head.

> Ability to work harder. Unlike freeweights which require you to stabilize as you move, a machine allows you to concentrate solely on pushing or pulling the weight without fear of hurting yourself. This should allow you to squeeze out a few extra reps.

> Ability to increase the weights in smaller increments. Typically, the lightest plate you can use in freeweights is a 2V2 pounder, which means a five-pound increase on the bar whenever you want to add any weight. Some of the newer machines, on the other hand, can be adjusted in one-pound increments.

> Variable resistance. Certain machines decrease the resistance during the phase of the exercise when your muscles are the weakest. This helps eliminate the sticking point and allows you to become stronger through the entire movement.

>- Fewer opportunities to cheat. With their padded features and adjustable parts, machines are built to isolate the muscle you're working. This reduces your tendency to move other body parts to "cheat" or assist you as you increase the weight, which translates plainly and simply into bad form.

Here are a few of the disadvantages of machines:

> While machines are easily adjusted to accommodate just about everyone, really small and/or large people may find it a poor fit.

> Unlike freeweights, which reinforce bilateral symmetry, some machines allow you to favor your dominant (or stronger) side. This perpetuates any disparity between your dominant and weaker sides.

>- Machines restrict you to a specific movement and therefore don't allow you to vary the exercise.

Ultimately, you can get stronger using machines, freeweights, or a combination of the two. There's no reason to restrict yourself to one or the other, but we suggest leaning toward machines as you begin.

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