5767535610_75802dc7e0_qI wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me what type of exercise equipment they should buy, or use at the gym, or which one is the best. Whether it is the more commonly used machines at the gym or the shall we say ‘unique’ ones you can purchase on TV, my answer is invariably the same: Why do you want to use exercise equipment? There are only really two right ways to answer this question.

  1. I have had an injury/muscle atrophy/severe muscle imbalance and I am either trying to rehab it so that I can get back into functional fitness or am unable to rehab it and so am doing what I can.
  2. I am not really interested in getting fit, getting healthy or avoiding injury; I just want my muscles and bum to look good at the beach or nightclub.

Machines might seem like a foolproof way to exercise and in some ways they can make things easier and reduce your risk of injury if you don’t know what you are doing. A Smith Machine for instance takes out the risk of falling over with the squat bar or letting it fall on your head out of pure fatigue. A treadmill prevents you from having to head out into uneven ground where you might roll an ankle or slip on wet ground. In the long run, though, are they really doing you any favours?

The key problem with using exercise machines instead of doing ‘functional’ fitness is that in many cases you are learning bad movement patterns and you are not building your core strength as effectively. Exercise machines like a ‘Pec Deck’ allow you to isolate specific muscle groups. This can be a real advantage if you need to rehab that specific muscle, or if you want those killer pecs for the club, but these advantages come at the expense of your core stability and movement patterns. I mean let’s face it – apart from on the ‘Pec Deck’, when are you ever going to want to lie flat on your back and push something up in the air? More likely you are going to be pushing a bin out to the street or pushing yourself up from lying on your stomach.

In order to do this you are not just going to need to use your pectorals, you are going to need to recruit a whole range of core stabilising muscles right throughout your body. Now if you don’t exercise these muscles, then how are they going to be strong enough to support you whilst you utilise your newfound pec strength? Not only that but if you don’t practice activating them during exercise, are they going to fire in the right order? This lack of stability and coordination will not only decrease your ability for real functional strength but it will increase your risk of injury when you inevitablly do try to use your newfound muscles in the ‘real world’.

In fact, even the much-loved treadmill can reduce your functional ability and increase your risk of injury. But aren’t treadmills supposed to be the safe option? Well, the treadmill is certainly a nice flat surface to run on, decreasing your risk of falls and ankle sprains (though I have seen people falls off a treadmill and it was not pretty), but they can wreak havoc on your running technique. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to run on a treadmill as opposed to running on the ground? Treadmill running is different and requires different biomechanics to road running and it can get you into bad habits especially in relation to your posture and your lean. Running with poor technique leads to more pressure on your ankles, knees and hips and can actually increase rather than decrease your chances of injury.

And don’t even get me started on those ‘Ab Machines’. If you want to get rid of the fat off your stomach, then you are going to want to do a whole lot more than just ab exercises. In fact doing ab exercises alone will not only unbalance your body and put you at risk of injury, it may even cause an increase in bulk around that stomach area and make your belly stick out more than it already did!

So there is a time and a place for exercise equipment, but in the long run most of you are going to be much better off including more functional exercises into your routine. So, for example, using push-ups instead of ‘Peck Deck’s’, using free weighted squats instead of ‘leg extensions’ and running on the open road instead of on the treadmill are great ways for you to not only look better but to actually be stronger and less likely to injure yourself too. Remember of course that if you are going to move towards free weights then you need to make sure you are doing it right. A few sessions with a good personal trainer who specialises in doing functional fitness would be a good idea before jumping head first into your new routine.