Walking into any commercial fitness facility can be an overwhelming experience for the person just beginning their fitness plan. Even just a cursory glance around the main gym floor reveals dozens and dozens of complex looking machines and equipment pieces to choose from.
But which exercises are best?
The reality is that very few weight training machines are useful. Certainly not as useful as a standard iron barbell or a pair of old fashioned iron dumbbells. You can generally find the barbells and dumbbells in the back of the facility, hidden from public view. Often times covered in a few cobwebs due to a lack of utilization. This is a shame, because 99% of the time, an old fashioned barbell is the most useful piece of equipment in the entire gym – if you know how to use it.
Proper exercise selection is a key component to an effective strength training plan. Randomly choosing a few things that look appealing at each session is not a plan. Constant variation in exercise selection is not a strategy. Not everything is of equal value. Instead, a solid strength training plan focuses not on constant variety, but on mastery of the few things that work well. Long term progression on just a handful of productive basic exercises is the key to building lasting physical strength.
When comparing exercises to one another, there are 3 basic guidelines one can use to separate the wheat from the chaff.
First: Standing is Better Than Seated
For athletes this is especially true. Sports are played on two feet, and exercises that force us to sit down do a poor job preparing us for these types of activities. Exercises that require us to stand while we do them require us to balance and stabilize the entire two piece system – our bodies and the load we are working against. Balance and stabilization while producing force is a fundamental ability that all athletes must master. Balance and stabilization require us to use more muscle mass than movements that allow us to sit. Pressing a heavy weight overhead can be done seated or standing. Both exercises primarily utilize the muscles of the shoulders and arms to accomplish the lift. However, the standing version also requires significant contribution from the lower body to anchor us to the floor as well as the muscles of the abdominals, obliques, and lower back. These muscles are often referred to as ‘the core.’ They are not primary producers of force, but they are very important transmitters of force. Exercises that allow us to sit, do not adequately train both the producers and transmitters of force together as a system. And in sport, and in life, all of our musculature functions together – simultaneously – as one complete system.
Second: Multi-joint Exercises are Better Than Single-Joint Exercises
Single joint exercises are often referred to as isolation exercises. The types of movements that focus on the use of just a single muscle group are only useful a small percentage of the time. For those training for functional performance in sport or in life (this certainly includes seniors!) isolation exercises are of little value. No normal human movement occurs through the use of just a single joint or a single muscle group. All human movement: walking, running, lifting, jumping, throwing, standing up, climbing, swimming, etc. all involve multiple muscle groups and multiple joints working in unison with each other. When we walk or run the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves all fire simultaneously to propel us forward. The muscles of the low back and abdominals contract isometrically to hold our posture upright. If we want to improve our ability to walk or run with speed and power, then exercise selection should mimic what happens when we run. Training Squats or Deadlifts accomplishes this. The incorrect approach to take is attempting to “Isolate” each of those constituent muscle groups. This would require the use of 6 different exercises, none of which are particularly effective anyways. Furthermore – it’s an inefficient use of time in the gym.
Third: Free Weights Are Better Than Machines
Most of the time, the use of free weights (barbells and dumbbells) allows us to better adhere to rules one and two. Only through the use of free weight exercises can we effectively perform an exercise standing on two feet without some sort of artificial support that balances and stabilizes the weight for us. Remember – we don’t want to just move the weight – we also want to train our ability to stabilize and balance the entire 2 piece system that consists of our body and the load we are lifting. Machines completely eliminate the need to stabilize or balance. Secondly, free weights allow us to adjust the exercise to fit each of our individual body types without being locked into a rigid fixed range of motion. My clients come in all shapes and sizes and each exercise has to be adapted to their individual body type. I can do this with barbells and dumbbells, I cannot with a machine.