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