January 1, 2012

Ya Do What Ya Can - The Benefits Of Machines, And How To Work Around Injuries

Out With The Old, In With The New

Injuries are a part of life, and any serious lifter who has been faced with having to work around them at one point or another can attest that injuries are not as much of a setback as they initially appear to be (unless they are career threatening of course). In fact, injuries are often an opportunity for newfound growth, both mentally and physically. Mentally, because an injury forces a lifter to use their creativity to come up with new ways to subject their body to the tension needed to build upon, or at least maintain, their previous gains, and physically, because the new methods and techniques that are thought of introduce a brand new stimulus to which the body has not had a chance to adapt.

Muscles Only Know Tension

A lot of people get hung up on performing the same exercises, either because they fear losing all that they’ve gained if they don’t keep doing them, or because they believe that there isn’t anything better, therefore why change it, but the fact of the matter is that muscles only know tension. They do not know movements, or exercises, or have the ability to differentiate, for it is the nervous system (primarily muscle spindles and the Golgi Tendon Organ, located at the musculotendinous junction) which is responsible for monitoring and recording changes in length, and tension, to which it responds by selectively recruiting the muscles it perceives to be best suited for the job.

When the close-mindedness of believing that only a select group of exercises are worthwhile, and all the others are a waste of time, is removed, either because one has opened their mind to the fact that muscles only know tension, or because they are forced to be more open-minded as a result of a limiting injury, is when the opportunity for growth is greatest.

Limiting Beliefs

Some of the most common limiting beliefs that exist within the realm of strength and conditioning are:

·         To get big and/or strong, you must lift free weights

·         You must lift heavy to get bigger and/or stronger

·         You can’t get big and/or strong using machines

If these beliefs were in fact truth, and there was absolutely no benefit to performing anything but really heavy, free weight movements, there would be a serious shortage of bodybuilders out there, since most heavily rely on machines, while using relatively light amounts of resistance, which facilitates their style of training. Because muscles only know tension, it is possible to build a great deal of size and strength without strictly performing heavy, free weight movements.

This is not to suggest that heavy, free weight movements should be replaced with light, machine based exercises, but rather that each and every exercise can provide value, and being open-minded to this concept can not only increase potential results, but possibly help in avoiding an injury since it is generally the heavy, free weight exercises that carry the greatest risk.

Rise Of The Machines

When lifting a free weight, the tension the muscle is under varies based on the resistance’s line of pull in relation to the body’s lever arm. When the resistance’s line of pull is perpendicular (90 degrees) to the body’s lever arm, is when the greatest levels of force are required. For optimal development, a muscle needs to be strengthened at its longest and shortest ranges of motion, and sometimes this simply is not possible with free weights, as the tension is all but removed in some cases at end ranges of motion.

Machines, good ones anyway, use what is called variable resistance to match the movement’s strength curve, so that relative continuous muscular tension is required throughout the entire range of motion, not just when the resistance’s line of pull is 90 degrees to the body’s lever arm. This is the number one advantage machines offer, which free weights do not.

While it is possible to attempt to match the strength profile of a movement with an ascending strength curve by using accommodating resistance, like resistance bands, or lifting chains, this does nothing for movements with a descending strength curve. The only way for the muscles involved in movements with a descending strength curve to require relative continuous muscular tension is to use variable resistance machines.

Once again, this is not to suggest replacing heavy, free weight movements with machines, but rather that machines in some cases provide benefits in ways that free weight never could. The following are some examples of the more valuable pieces of equipment found within most gym, and modifications to either increase their effectiveness, or create a completely different movement.

Hammer Strength Machines

Hammer strength machines are extremely versatile in a sense that multiple variations of each respective exercise can be performed on each machine, and each machine respects the natural strength curve by providing variable resistance to create a more complete movement. With a little thought and creativity, these machines can be used to effectively target muscles in ways in which the manufacturers likely never intended, one example being:

High Row

When performing this movement in the way it was designed, the lats are stretched at the top, but not to the same degree as if the hips are cocked back. Therefore, with a few postural adjustments the extent to which the lats are stretched can be enhanced:

·         Lean in on a 45 degree angle and stabilize the torso by resting the chest on the pad

·         Support your weight on your feet as opposed to sitting on the seat

·         Hold onto the outer beam to which the handles which were intended to be held attach

This creates a slightly different line of pull than any free weight, bodyweight, or cable exercise does.

Another effective manner in which this machine can be used is to turn sideways and perform the movement unilaterally. Doing so challenges the lats in their shortest position, also in the frontal plane, as opposed to the ever common sagittal plane.

Smith Machine

The smith machine is another versatile piece of equipment in which an assortment of exercises can be performed. Because the bar is on a fixed path and cannot travel 3-dimensionally the way a free weight barbell can, there is less of a stability component needed, meaning it’s much easier to focus on directing tension onto the targeted area, one example being:

Smith Barbell Row

The free weight barbell row is one of the most challenging lifts to perfect because the center of gravity is slightly in front of the base of support, which magnifies the amount of stress the lower back is under, and increases the demand needed to maintain stability, which ultimately affect force production potential.

The Smith machine limits the stability component, thus improving the ability to mentally focus on directing as much stress as possible onto the targeted area, thus increasing the effectiveness of the movement.

Another effective manner in which this movement can be performed is with a wide grip to allow the elbows to flare out to the side, as the bar is pulled to the neck to direct a greater percentage of stress onto the rear delts.

Can’t Live With Em, Can’t Live Without Em

Even the most open mind can have a hard time letting go of such strong beliefs that were once so close to the heart. If one simply can’t live without their beloved heavy, free weight movements, even if they sustained an injury when performing such movements, the best option would be to bang out a few sets at the tail end of the workout. This way, the involved joints are warmed up, and momentary strength levels limit the amount of weight that can safely be used, thus reducing the risk of injury while satiating the desire to perform the movement.

If you have any questions about the benefits of machine based training, or working around injuries, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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