Exercise and Injury Risk – The Rise of the Machines

The exercise industry is one of trends, some of which are only fleeting, but one trend has hung on longer than it deserves. The machines have infiltrated most aspects of muscle conditioning, building our dependence until we almost lost the ability to work without them. Now however, a few brave souls are leading the fight back, to help humans regain their independence and their heritage of authentic, natural movement.

As you enter most large gyms, you are met by a regiment of machines, lined up as if they were on parade and awaiting inspection by a visiting senior machine. Smaller gyms with less than a parade ground of space may have just a platoon of machines, often hugging the walls looking to take cover. The variety is bewildering, Chest Press machines, Hamstring Curl machines, Pec Decks, Lat Pull Down machines and Hack Squat machines; but there are new machines being created all the time, it makes you wonder how humans ever manage without them.

The appeal of the machines appears to be reasonable though, they control the movements we make, so preventing us from doing anything silly that could cause an injury. The role of the machines is clear, they are there to protect us from our selves. Is it just me, or does this theme have the sinister echoes of several science fiction stories?

I’m sure there is some evidence to back up the claim that machines reduce the risk of injuries while people are in the gym, but I think that training should improve our experience of daily life, not just time in the gym. Having machines to stabilise us and control our movements means we never have to, but that’s not the case once we are out of the gym. You are more likely to suffer an injury due to a lack of stability during  an unguarded movement than you are just because you couldn’t chest press twice your own body weight.

The other problem with most machines is that they encourage the exercising of muscles in isolation; but we don’t use muscles in isolation. The brain doesn’t even operate in terms of muscles, it operates in terms of movements. As we develop our movement vocabulary, we don’t learn hip abduction or thigh extension, we learn to crawl or to stand up from squatting on our haunches. Movements require the co-ordinated use of many muscles and the quality of co-ordination we develop influences the level of skill we achieved in the movement.

The more skilfully we perform a movement the less chance we have of producing an injury. Now I’m not trying to suggest that the most highly skilled individuals don’t get injured, clearly world champions in any activity have a relatively high risk of injury; they are constantly pushing the limits of what’s possible, that’s why they are world champions! But for any given activity, whether it’s riding a bicycle down your street or performing a double back somersault dismount off a high bar in gymnastics, who is more likely to get injured, someone who has a high level of skill or someone who hasn’t really got the hang of it yet?

Exercise and Injury Risk - The Rise of the Machines

Exercising isolated muscles does little to contribute to improved co-ordination so doesn’t provide any of the injury protecting skill. Muscle isolation exercises may well help the bodybuilder to refine the look of their body by focussing on individual muscles, but they are much less helpful in preventing back pain or protecting against falls. While wanting to look our best is a common reason to exercise, being unable to stand up straight because of back pain or in a wheelchair with a broken ankle after a fall may not be quite the look we were aiming for.

Learning to exercise without the restrictions to movement imposed by the machines is more demanding and requires a bit more concentration, simply because you need to develop skills, not just bigger biceps. As with many things in life, you get what you pay for. Invest a bit more attention and reap the rewards of improved movement skills and greater injury prevention.

To learn a new movement, or even to improve an old one, skilled coaching can provide a real shortcut as well as helping injury prevention during the “getting the hang of it” phase. I would suggest it is far better to pay someone to provide high quality exercise coaching, than to pay someone for access to a battalion of shiny machines.

Now that I’ve finished my counter attack on the machines, I have to admit that there are times, particularly during rehabilitation after an injury, when machines are really useful, but more on that next time.