Free Weights vs. Exercise Machines, Part 1

Question of the Week: Does how you feel physically affect the way you serve?

Nugget of the Day: Body weight and free weight exercises are superior to exercise machines for developing functional strength.

Time to call yourselves out.  Guys- How many of you walk into the gym and the first machine you go to is the “Pec Deck” machine?  You know the one.  3 different settings to work your chest muscles.  And… oh yeah…you use every one of them.  And, funny, it is conveniently located to be the first machine you get to when you enter the strength area of the gym.  Hmmm….  Ladies- How about the “Thigh Buster”?  The one that is supposed to trim those legs, but really only threatens to rip your legs apart if you let go.  Unless you were born with no arms and are must pick everything up with your knees, I’m not quite sure when you perform that machine’s movement in your average day.  It’s time to mix things up.

In addition to boosting metabolism as we covered before, your strength training serves the purpose of making you stronger.  I know, it sounds obvious considering the name.  But let’s be clear about something.  Strength is not just about improved muscle tone.  It is also about being able to use that muscle effectively and efficiently.  It is essential that we choose exercises that serve this purpose.  Think about the times when you are physically active in your life, using your muscles to do work.  What position are you in?  Standing, right?  Then why exercise on machines that have you sitting down for all of your movements?  Real-life strength involves not only the ability to facilitate movement, but also the ability to stabilize the body so that the movement can be performed.  These core stabilizers so essential to strength are almost completely shut down when you sit down at a machine to exercise, and the coordination between major muscles and smaller stabilizers that is so essential for safe movement is not developed.

Think again about your physical activity.  How many muscles are usually involved in a given movement?  More than one, right?  Then why exercise on machines that completely isolate muscle groups?  Real-life movement almost always involves some combination of muscle groups working together.  Picking an item up off the ground involves a combination of lower body muscles, core stabilizing muscles, and upper body muscles.  In the gym we call this a “deadlift”.  Outside the gym, we call this “work”.  Did you know that it would take over 7 isolation machines to work all the muscles involved in that one movement?  Even if you wanted to waste your time in that way and do all those exercises separately, you still wouldn’t be developing the coordination between all those muscle groups working together to safely perform the movement, and your risk of injury would be dramatically increased.

Now, before I start getting “hate mail” from exercise machine manufacturers, let me be fair.  Machines do have their place.  One, they are effective for the beginner that is unsure of the movements and needs to be lead through the exercise for correct form.  Second, machines are very stable, and when set up properly by the user according to the instructions, they can provide a means by which someone can exercise with less fear of injury and relative safety*.  (I put an asterix there because if you don’t set up the machine correctly or don’t perform the movement properly, the machine can actually increase risk of injury because there is little freedom of movement and can result in improper angles of force)  Third, they do build muscle mass, one of the essential components to being strong.  But real life happens when you’re standing and moving, so get up off that slick padded seat that 250 people have already sweat upon before you and get free!

Click Featured Exercises to get some ideas for exercises that don’t involve machines.  Also, click Workouts to see some ways to build that functional strength.


Increasing Resting Metabolic Rate

Question of the Week:  What is the purpose of your journey?

Nugget of the Day:  Increasing muscle mass through strength training is the best way to raise resting metabolic rate (RMR).

The major factors in increasing resting metabolic rate (RMR) are an increase in lean body tissue (muscle mass), being young, genetics, or some hormonal change such as hyperthyroidism or monthly cycle.  Scroll through this list and tell me which ones you actually have some control over.  “Being young”?  It would sure be nice to have some control in this area, but unfortunately the clock keeps ticking.  “Genetics”?  Again, while some of us wish we could have chosen our pedigree, our chromosomes are what they are.  And genetics can even account for a 10-20% difference in RMR.  Some engines just run a little more “hot” than others.  “Hormonal changes” are also largely out of our control, so the only remaining factor that we can influence is lean body tissue, or muscle mass.

A few post back I mentioned that excessive amounts of cardiovascular exercise can decrease muscle mass, thereby decreasing number of calories burned, both at rest and during exercise.  Have any of you ever participated in a cardio-heavy exercise routine and wondered why you plateaued after a few months?  One of the prevailing factors leading to this plateau is a decrease in metabolism associated with loss of muscle mass.  Strength training stimulates the body to both retain present muscle and to add additional muscle mass to what you already have.  The benefits gained pertaining to metabolism are in effect for the entire day.  Not only does the body burn more calories during exercise when there is more muscle mass present, but the RMR also goes up and you burn more calories at rest as well.  RMR is important, whether you are trying to shed body fat, or just seeking to maintain your current level of fitness.  And a proper strength training program performed a couple times a week is just the thing your body needs.  I have some workouts that you can use to get started, and keep checking back as I am adding more each week!

“I’m afraid of ‘bulking up’ by doing strength training” is a concern I often hear, and I will address this in the next “Nugget of the Day”, so check back soon!


Effects of Too Much Cardio

Question of the Week #8: What course are you currently walking?

Nugget of the Day #4: Excessive amounts of aerobic exercise create a catabolic (breakdown) effect on the body, resulting in loss of muscle mass-a major component to body metabolism.

This one is for all you aerobic nuts out there, who decide to get in shape by wearing out every piece of cardio equipment in the gym.  While cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, cycling, aerobics classes) is an important and beneficial component to a balanced exercise program and is effective for calorie burn, the single-minded, cardio-only approach is actually detrimental to long term success.  If your goal is to run the marathon or win the spin-a-thon, then absolutely, keep at it.  But if your goal is to maximize the calorie burn potential of your workout and to improve body composition, then cardio all day…every day is not the answer.

Muscle mass is one of the key determinants of body metabolism.  Moving muscle takes energy.  The more muscle you must move, the more energy it requires.  In its attempt to be more efficient at your aerobic exercise activities, the body gets rid of muscle mass, thereby making the activity less taxing on the body to perform.  However, this catabolic effect results in a lower overall metabolism and decreases the amount of energy expended in your activities.  What does this mean?  It means that you need to do more and more cardio to get the same desired effect.  By stimulating the body to retain muscle mass through strength training, you negate this effect and keep the quality of your cardio workouts where you want it.  So substitute a couple of those turns on the Stairmaster with a couple of reps with the iron.  View the Workouts posts for some great ideas to get you started.  You’ll see the difference!


Motivation/ Results of Aerobic Exercise

Question of the Week #7: What is your motivation for being physically healthy?

Nugget of the Day #3: Aerobic exercise results in reduced body fat, as well as increased heart and lung efficiency.

Aerobic exercise is an important component to a well-balanced exercise program.  Aerobic exercise, or cardio as it has been nicknamed, refers to activities such as walking, running, cycling, elliptical trainers, stair climbers, and aerobics classes.  Any type of activity that involves longer duration, sustained body movement.  What type and amount is dictated by the goals of the individual and the needs of their activities.  Aerobic exercise has both its benefits and its drawbacks.  Today we will focus just on the benefits.

Reduced Body Fat– Studies have shown that people who engage in regular aerobic exercise show greater decreases in body fat percentage than those who do not.  One reason for this is the utilization of fat as an energy source for the activity.  Because aerobic exercise by definition is exercise in the presence of oxygen, and breakdown of the fat molecule into energy requires oxygen, fat becomes a major energy source during aerobic activity.  Second, aerobic activity, by nature, is usually sustained over a longer period of time, and therefore the overall energy requirement is higher resulting in a net decrease of calories and a loss of body fat.

Increased Heart and Lung Efficiency– Over time, the body adapts to aerobic exercise and becomes more efficient.  One area is heart efficiency.  Consistent aerobic exercise stimulus results in strengthening of the heart muscle, as well as improvements throughout the entire circulatory system.  The heart is able to pump more blood per beat, resulting in a lower heart rate to provide adequate oxygen to the body systems and decreased stress on the heart.  Also, higher red blood cell count and increased capillary density mean increased ability to carry oxygen, lowering heart rate as well.  With regard to the lungs, aerobic exercise improves the lungs’ oxygen uptake capacity and ability to transfer oxygen to the blood stream, also improving efficiency and resulting in a decreased workload on the lungs.

The improved heart and lung efficiency means a couple of different things.  One, it means that you are able to exercise at higher and higher levels as the body becomes conditioned.  When you first start out, the fastest you might be able to run a mile is 12 minutes.  But over the course of time and training, as a result of improved efficiency in the heart and lungs, as well as muscle efficiency (but we’ll talk about that later), you will find that you will be able to run the mile in 10 minutes, or less, at the same level of effort.  These adaptations certainly have implications for how you program your aerobic exercise routine.  If your goal is to run faster, then you are on your way.  Keep up the good work.  But, improved efficiency also means that the energy requirement for your activity goes down.  If your goals are more focused on body composition, then adaptation might not be your friend.  You will have to be a little more creative.  I will explain why and how in the next “Nugget” post.


Question of the Week #5/ Nugget of the Day #1

Question of the Week #5:  What is a reasonable time-frame for reaching optimal physical health and fitness?  90 days?  6 months?  1 year?  More?

Nugget of the Day #1:  A pound of body fat contains approximately 3500 Calories of energy.  That means to burn 1 pound of body fat off of your body, you need to expend 3500 more calories than you consume.

I am introducing a new item to the blog called “Nugget of the Day”.  I will include little pieces of information that you can log in the brain and will help you along the way in your journey to optimal physical health.  Enjoy!