Ultramarathons. What , why and how are the questions I'm most commonly asked. Hopefully you find some answers here from my own personal perspective. My other blog at www.mile27.com.au/blog is full of information on running and health and fitness in general.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Machine weights - to be avoided at all costs!

I was recently reading a well known running magazine when I came across an article regarding Machine weights vs Free weights for running. The article gave a balanced argument for both but recommended that maybe beginners would be better off starting with machines.

I’d like to say that without doubt performing weights using a Machine should NEVER be done by any runner, beginners, intermediate or advance, and especially not for people with an injury. No if’s but’s , no exceptions at all. Not only are they not performance enhancing I would strongly argue they are performance dehancing. The machines I am referring to are Leg Press, Leg Extension, Leg Curl, Hip Adduction ( inner thigh), Hip Abduction (outer thigh)

Pretty strong words I know but I hope after you read this article you’ll understand where I am coming from.

Lets look at the common arguments put forward by the pro machine weight training camp and see if they make sense and how relevant it is to running.

Keep in mind I am talking about the use of machine weights to improve running performance. Just because someone becomes stronger on a machine doesn’t mean the have more strength as a runner.

There is one very important principle to keep in mind when assessing the benefit of a particular exercise will have to your ability to run more efficiently

The strength, endurance, power and flexibility gained in an exercise is only transferable to exercises that use similar loads, ranges of movement, joint angle, body position and speed of movement

This is a universally accepted law that all good coaches apply to their training. We’ll come back to it often as it underpins (or should) the rationale for every exercise a coach or trainer prescribes for their athletes.

Simply put it means if the exercise doesn’t look similar to, feel similar to, use similar speed of movements, have the body and joints in similar positions to running then it wont improve your running.

Looking at it another way the more similar the exercise is to the action you are training for the more the brain can take all it learnt doing one exercise and apply it to the other. Remember the brain controls the body.

Imagine if you learnt to drive in a Electrical Gee Whiz car and then tried to drive a Porsche. You’d be able to manage it wouldn’t you, yes they are different but the basics are the same. Now imagine instead of driving a car you then tried to fly a plane. My guess is you wouldn’t know where to start. The skill set is different and somebody who had never driven a car before would have just as much chance as you at flying the plane. Thats how similar machine weight exercise and running are. Read on and I’ll explain more.

Now what are the Machine weight advocates claiming......

Machine weights isolate the main muscles groups leading to greater strength. – True
Does this matter? No. Can it be detrimental to our running? Yes

The strength gained in an exercise is specific to the particular exercise. Thighs capable of lifting heavy weights in a leg extension machine wont make you a stronger or faster runner.

Why would machine weights be detrimental to me?

If the main muscles become stronger than the smaller stabilising muscles then injuries can occur. An example of this is imagine if you tried running over very unstable ground at the same pace you run on the track. Chances of being injured? Pretty high I would think. For true usable strength you need to train the smaller stabilising muscles at the same time you train the main muscles – ie in the same exercise – something that Machine weight exercises are incapable of doing.

You can do exercises on Machine weights that you cannot do with free weights - True

Does it matter? No Can it be detrimental to running ? Yes

A few examples are the leg curl, leg extension, hip adduction and hip abduction machines. No you cant do those exercises using free weights but why would you want to. None of them work the muscles in a way that is at all similar to running and in fact they train the muscles in a way that can set you up for an injury when you run. Lets look at a couple of these each of these and see why they should form no part of any runners training program

Leg Curl – an exercise that involves lying on your stomach or sitting down and bending your knee (flexing) such that your heel travels towards your rear. So the hamstring is flexing the knee joint with the foot off weight bearing and the hips and pelvis are relatively fixed. In running the hamstring pulls the pelvis forward on a fixed leg with the foot on the ground, as this happens the knee is straightening not bending. So if your hamstring has gained its strength from bending the knee whilst the hips are fixed what do you think will happen when we straighten the knee and extend the hip? At best it will have very little strength as it will find it difficult to co-ordinate the action at worst it wont be able to relax over the knee joint and will tear.

Hip Abduction ( Outer thigh) Machine – this involves you sitting down with your legs in a position like a gynaecologists chair and then pushing your legs as wide as possible increasing the angle between upper thigh and pelvis in an attempt to work the gluteal muscles.

In running the glute muscle works to control the inwards rotation of the leg as you land, control the drop of the non stance side hip as you land and propel your pelvis forward all whilst one leg is on the ground. So instead of working to increase the angle between pelvis and thigh it works to control the reduction of that angle ie how much leg upper thigh goes in.

In the hip abduction machine there is no rotation component or hip extension component , in fact because you are sitting on the machine your hips are flexed. They couldn’t be much more dissimilar if you tried.

Machine weights are far easier to learn to use – True but thats a bad thing!

Just because something is easier to use doesn’t mean it is worth doing in the first place. It is easier to use because it doesn’t involve any co-ordination or neuromusclar skill something that the Machine weight Advocates say is a good thing.
However running is an activity that requires very good co-ordination and neuromuscular skill so it makes no sense to start with an exercise that involves neither of these.

Machine weight advocates will argue that you can start with free weights and then build up to free weights.

If we followed that train of thought we would have stronger main muscles (one of the supposed benefits of machine weights) and therefore the balance between our stabiliser muscles and main muscles will be even worse than what it was when we started so co-ordination between the two will be even more difficult.

It’s like saying that a good way to learn to ski is start with sitting on a sled and coasting downhill because real skiing involves too much co-ordination and neuromuscular skill. Obviously you wouldn’t start of by going down a black run , you start by learning how to snow plough and do some basic drills but it still LOOKS like skiing.

If the co-ordination and neuromuscular skills required for an exercise are similar then the brain can use the skills gained in one exercise and transfer it to another if they are different then it cant do that.

Machine weights are safer – False

Yes they are safer to use in terms of doing the actual exercise , the worst that can happen is you let go and the weight stack falls and makes a large bang whereas if you are using free weights and drop a dumbbell you can injure yourself BUT are they safer in terms of the effect they have on your body afterwards? No

If your main muscles are stronger than your stabilising muscles can control then you simply set yourself up for an injury.If the pattern of muscle recruitment and co-ordination is different for the machine weight compared to running then injury will likely result.Machine weights are very good for developing muscular imbalances that eventually lead to injury.

Machines weights apply a more even resistance via the use of cams and pulleys which allow equal load to be put on the muscle throughout the exercise – True
Does it matter? No

If we want to improve the way we run then the loads should simulate the loads that occur in running. In running we have a landing force we have to deal with, we have to deal with the constant affect of gravity and the affects of momentum. None of these are simulated by a Machine. Who cares if the machine can give your muscles a nice even load throughout the movement, it certainly doesn’t happen when we run.

It is easier to perform Machine weights exercises slowly which will lead to greater strength – False

A slower speed of movement will lead to more hypertrophy (muscle growth) not strength. One thing most runners don’t need is big bulky muscles (sprinters possibly excepted)

Body builders like machines because they can perform slow controlled movements that are great for putting maximum stress on the muscles to stimulate maximum growth. (Thats another argument that I wont go into today!)
What do we mean by greater strength anyway? Does the ability to lift a heavier weight mean anything when applied to runners? When you consider that when running each foot hits the ground ninety times a minute or 5400 times an hour, the idea of improving your strength to lift a weight 10 or 15 times seems a bit pointless.

Studies show that runners having undergone a Machine weight training program have improved running performance – True

This is what the Machine weight advocates cling to, research that shows improved performance after a 12 week weight training program. All these studies used either free weights or a mixture of machine and free weights, so are inconclusive when comparing free weights to machine weights. Short term studies like this also ignore any long term negative affects that machine weight had on the athlete.

Since there are some short term studies saying that some use of Machine weights when combined with free weights improved running performance isn’t that good enough to keep using them?

No. In my opinion why use a training method that contradicts almost every known training principle? When the risk of a running injury is higher using machine weights and there are far better ways to improve running performance, using machines make no sense.

Some people will argue that machine weights would be good for building a particular muscle up since they believe that muscle may be weak and causing an injury problem.
If you are recommended to use the leg curl, leg extension, leg press, hip adduction and hip abduction machines by a health professional or trainer find another professional or trainer for they do not understand what they are talking about when it comes to exercise prescription. They may be great a diagnosing injuries but they aren’t in terms of prescribing exercises.

Muscles become weak because they are not activated properly in a particular action (in this case running), just because you increase the strength and size of a muscle on a machine doesn’t mean it will activate properly when you run. Muscles are activated by movement and if your body doesn’t move correctly then the correct muscles may not be activated. The key is to get the body moving correctly.

For example if you foot doesn’t pronate enough then your lower leg and then upper leg wont rotate inwards when you land which would normally switch on your inner quadriceps muscle and your gluteal muscles, the rotation of your upper leg combined with correct movement of the pelvis shouldl also switch on your gluteal muscles. No amount of repetitions on the Hip Abduction machine is going to make your foot pronate more .

If you are looking to increase you strength for running have a look at the following articles here and here

Strengthening your Gluteus Medius – do exercises like the Clam or a side lying leg lift actually do anything?

The Gluteus medius is situated on the side of your hip and controls the movement of your pelvis in the frontal plane. In English that means it control how much your opposite side hip drops when you walk or run. To feel what I mean, stand on 1 leg and let your other hip drop towards the floor. Now lift it back up again – you have just worked your gluteus medius. To see what I mean simply watch any catwalk model walk and observe how the hips move from side to side and the pelvis tilts side to side when looking from behind.

Weakness in this muscle is very common and is responsible for a number of injuries including Iliotibial Band (ITB)Syndrome and knee pain.
One common exercise given by health or fitness professionals is to lie on your side and lift your top leg off your bottom leg and hold it there for up to 60 seconds. This does work the Gluteus medius but does it help stabilise the movement of your pelvis when you walk?

A study* I have just discovered confirms that strength in performing that exercise is completely independent on how much someone’s pelvis tilts from side to side. In other words performing that exercise had NO effect on Gluteus Medius strength in running.

Some people who were very weak in this exercise had very good pelvic control and some who were very strong in the exercise had very poor pelvic control.
The researchers concluded that a more dynamic test of Gluteus medius may be more appropriate.

The Clam and exercises like it – are you wasting your time?

The Clam is an exercise that is very similar, you lie on your side with your knees bent and keeping your feet together you raise the knee of the top leg , opening your legs up so that your legs make the shape of a clam, this is repeated many times. Side lying leg raises are similar except the leg is straighter and the whole of the top leg is lifted up and down.

These are recommended by many physiotherapists, doctors, personal trainers and coaches but it is my view that exercises like this are next to useless in improving gluteus medius (or gluteus maximus for that matter) strength in running or walking.
The only difference between the exercise used in the study mentioned above and clams or side lying leg lifts the angle of the knee is different and instead of holding the leg up you are moving it up and down. I don’t feel this makes the exercise any better hope to convince you to try and different approach to strengthening this muscle for running.

The rule of specificity

Remember that the strength, endurance, power and flexibility gained in an exercise is only transferable to exercises that use similar loads, ranges of movement, joint angle, body position and speed of movement. This is a universally accepted rule that no coach, trainer or physical therapist can argue with.

In simple terms it says that the strength gained in a particular exercise is only relevant to other exercises that look and feel similar to the original exercise. For example the strength gained in doing a bench press will make you better at push ups but wont improve your ability to throw a cricket ball, or the strength gained in doing small range squats will help skiing but wont help you to kick a ball further.
If the body positions, loads, speed of movement and range of movement aren’t similar then the body wont transfer the gains from one exercise to the next.

When you think about it it makes sense, someone who is good at tennis is often good at squash but may be hopeless at bowling a cricket ball. Someone who is good at surfing will pick up snow boarding easier than someone who has strong legs from doing squats in the gym.

So lets compare the two positions

Clam/ Side lying leg lifts

Body Position..............Lying on your side
Load........................Weight of one leg
Initial Movement........Lifting leg up- contacting muscle
Speed of Movement.....Slow and controlled
Range of Movement.....from slightly lower then hip to approx 45 degrees or more
Stimulation.............Consciously driven by exerciser

Running or Walking

Body Position..............Standing on one leg
Load........................Weight of body minus the weight of the stance leg
Initial Movement........Pelvis dropping down – stretching the muscle
Speed of Movement.......Fast – less than ½ a second
Range of Movement.......From pelvis tilted 5-15 degrees up to 5-15 degrees down
Stimulation...............Unconsciously driven by reaction to gravity

As you can see there are NO similarities at all. You may as well do bicep curls.


One other important point to remember is that muscles react to feedback given to them by tiny cells called proprioreceptors that are found throughout the body.

These proprioreceptors tell the brain what is happening. For example if they feel that a muscle is getting stretched rather rapidly the brain will activate that muscle to protect itself. This is exactly what happens in the gluteus medius, the sudden impact of landing places a rapid dynamic stretch on the muscle, the proprioreceptors sense this and tell the brain which then activates the muscle to protect it. None of this happens consciously.

The idea that you can train a muscle by consciously contracting it and then hope that the brain can now apply that strength unconsciously in a completely different environment is dubious at best.

A waste of time?

So if the position of the body in side lying based exercises is so different to running and the load is different and the speed of movement is different and the range of movement is different and the mechanism that turns on the muscle is different you can begin to see why the clam or side lying leg raises are basically ineffective when it comes to strengthening the gluteus medius in relation to controlling the pelvis when we walk and run.

The justification of doing these types of exercises is that they are a starting point to gain strength and you will need to progress it from there. I disagree with this also as the exercise is so dissimilar from running I feel there is little if any carry over into running. It would be like teaching someone to ski by telling them they need to spend time on a sled first. Yes a sled involves sliding downhill on snow but, the way the muscles are used in skiing is so different to sitting on a sled you can spend all day everyday riding a sled and you’d never be a better skier.

Yes side lying exercises do work the glute muscle but in a way so different to running that you could do you side lying leg lifts every day and still have poor control of your pelvis when you run.

The next question is ok if they don’t work what exercise does?

Unfortunately this is not an easy question to answer and there is no universal exercise that will strengthen the gluteus medius of every body who does it. The reason for this lies in understanding that muscles react to stimulus provided by the proprioreceptors. If the proprioreceptors aren’t stimulated then the brain wont have any reason to activate the muscle. Alternatively the muscle may be trying to do too much due to weaknesses in other muscles. It makes no sense to train the muscle up to cope with the weaknesses in other areas, a better approach is to address the weak muscles first.

For example the glute medius can be overloaded if a persons foot pronates too much or can be understimulated if the opposite foot doesn’t pronate enough, or if the person lacks mobility in the spine or any number of other reasons.

The point is that no matter how good the glutes medius exercise you perform is if it doesn’t address the reason your gluteus medius isn’t working properly in the first place it wont help.

A better alternative to side lying glute exercises

Whilst I am reluctant to recommend any exercise as ideally you should be assessed to determine why you have the weakness in the first place I feel it would be remiss of me and frustrating for you to tell you that clams and side lying leg raises are a waste of time and not give you a better alternative.

So here’s two different exercise , one for people with tight hips ( usually men) and one for people with weak hips ( usually females). These aren’t necessarily the best exercises you can do but they are ones that are relatively easy to describe and perform by yourself. If you aren't sure which one is best for you since not all men have tight hips and not all women have weak hips then try both andwhichever you find hardest do that one!

Tight Hips

Stand back to a wall, feet about 2-3 inches away from the wall, feet together, shoulders against wall, hands joined together, arms above head with arms ideally against the wall also but if your arms aren’t that flexible don’t worry just have them above your head as much as possible.

Now all you need to do is take your hands and reach to the side as far as possible such that your body bends sideways. Ensure BOTH butt cheeks and BOTH shoulders remain touching the wall.

Your movements should be relatively quick and your aim is to increase movement without hips or shoulder coming away from the wall. If you hips feel like they are moving side to side , great!

Try the same but without the wall behind you ensuring your body moves from side to side and there is no rotation. Imagine the wall is still behind you. Next step is to try it with one foot forward of the other.

Weak Hips
Stand on 1 leg with the same side arm as stance leg above your head and the opposite side hand on your hip. Lets say you stand on your right leg then your right arm will be above your head and left hand on your hip. Now take your right hand and reach sideways to the left as far as you can and at the same time use your left hand to push your hips to the right and then return to starting position. The speed of movement should be relatively quick but slow enough that you can control it.

Progress the speed as you improve. Use you other non stance leg for balance if you have to.To make harder start with standing on two legs arms in the same position as before and then step forward with your right leg and at the same time perform the same arm action as before.

*Isometric gluteus medius muscle torque and frontal plane pelvic motion during running
Evie N. Burnet and Peter E. Pidcoe
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2009) 8, 284-288

Part 2 and 3 of a post on training an endurance runner. This is aimed at Trainers not so much runners themselves but those of you with an interest in the scientific rationale and biomechanics that goes into designing a conditioning program should find it informative

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Training to improve Strength, Power, Endurance and Flexibility for a marathon runner

Part 1(of 3) of a post on training an endurance runner. This is aimed at Trainers not so much runners themselves but those of you with an interest in the scientific rationale and biomechanics that goes into designing a conditioning program should find it informative