Machine Training: Safety Issues

I remember about 7 years ago someone asked me where I thought the fitness industry was going.  At the time I was just finishing up my B.S. in Biology but really had no clue where it was going knowledge wise.  One thing I do remember is saying that the machines would change.  I felt that the machines would be replaced by more complex (technologically) machines or more bodyweight or functional training (remember functional used to be a BIG buzz word, it kind of still is).  Anyways, both have happened although the latter is more apparent; machines are fading away and natural movement is replacing it.  Luckily, for the gym, this means more open floor space.

So Whats Wrong With Machines?

Simply put, when do you use a machine to play your sport?  Unless you are driving robots using levers that are excessively heavy, you are not.  In all seriousness, often people (who don’t know much about anatomy) argue that machines are good for excessively overweight people or handicap individuals.  While this is a decent argument and well intended, it is fundamentally wrong.  It is wrong, in that, if the individual is still able to move their appendage then they are able to train in a free moving manner.  The manner of difficulty arises in the trainers ability to tactile coach (hands on), progress and structure their clients workout(s).  Simply put, the trainer (which may be a doctor/physiotherapist/osteopath/etc) often doesn’t know jack about progressions, structure, and coaching a persons movements.

Remember that often the machines are based on business.  Business means they need to sell it, not selling it means no food, and no food means death.  I know that is dramatic, but it’s also the truth.  Dr. Mel Siff is quoted by saying, “It is commonly believed that gymnasium machines are intrinsically safer than free weights and require far less skill in using them.  This fallacy is one reason why injuries are still regularly sustained by those who rely solely on machines for training.”

One thing is very obvious when considering the spine and sport specific training is the fact that with most machines, the user is seated. When you are seated you remove the entire lower quarter from the kinetic chain.   Yes, you may be able to engage the lower quarter by doing something like, “squeezing the glutes” but does it really mimic what you may be doing in your sport or even in real life situation?  Moreover, It is well-known that when you are seated the amount of compression is elevated 140% (100% based on standing load of 70kgs) when compared to laying flat.  Obviously laying flat is not very sports specific either, so what is the reasonable middle ground?  Standing.   Standing not only reduces total compression ratios once loaded but it also mimics real life situations.  This has been stated over and over again but I want you to think of it as it applies solely to the disc and the spine.  Why do I want you to do this?  Because lumbar disc herniations have the potential to not only ruin an athletes season but to ruin the athletes career.

Alright, Well What Do YOU Suggest Mr. Know It All?

My suggestion is the same across the board, whether its an excessively obese, handicapped, or mentally challenged individual; start simple.

Back to the basics:

1.  Isometrics: Static progressed to oscillatory or rhythmic PNF
2.  Open/Closed Chain (Depends on the issue) Unloaded/Bodyweight

Obviously one must be focusing on building endurance, strength, speed/agility; all built on proper movement.  Moreover, I am not going so far to say “never use machines” but I am going so far to say, I probably won’t use one.  But then again, I don’t need one to make a great athlete or take someone from rehab into doing “typical” gym work.

Machines and Safety Issues
special thanks to late, great: Dr. Mel Siff Ph.D.

Seated Vertical Pressing Machines

Fault: May force the user to hyperextend the spine by leaning forward to “get under” the load.  Also seated exercises are able to exert 90% more compression on the spine than the same exercise in a standing position.

If you have to use the SVPM be sure to keep your feet on the ground, a neutral spine, and a decent brace.  Placing your feet on the foot rest has the potential to destabilize your hips and spine.

Seated Leg Extension Machines

Fault:  One of the major problems with this machine is the unnatural vectors/forces it places on the knee.  The buttressing of the thigh combined with the long lever arm in contact with the shin, imposes a very large and unnatural force along the plane of the knee.  Moreover, the SLEM’s do not provide backrests that support  the lumbar curve.  Again, this can cause flexion thereby increasing the compressive loads already imposed by being seated.

If you have to use the SLPM make sure to lower the weight slowly so that you aren’t forced to round the spine.  I suggest placing a lumbar roll or a half foam roller between your lower back and seat.

Lying Inclined Leg Press Machines

Fault: If the user allows the legs to move all the way to the abdomen, the back will ultimately round (unless their hip mobility is like a ballerina).

Again, I suggest using a half foam roll or lumbar roll to place between you and the back of the seat.  Also if your active SLR is less than 80-90 degrees, stretch your hamstrings!  It’s not rocket science.

Bench Press Machines

Fault: These machines, almost always, make you start in the weakest biomechanical position of the shoulder complex.  What position is this?  With the bar at chest level.  Moreover, according to Siff, you do not begin in a pre-strectch position.  Overcome this by having someone lift the bar up first (if they are man enough).

Seated Torso Twisting (Oblique) Machines

Fault:  These are my favorite to roast.  I am going to digress right now and just say it.  These machines are ridiculously stupid.  Even Dr. Siff is stated saying, “…these [spinal twist machines] are a little more than useless…”  Not only is it possible to flex the spine, while twisting, they often allow you to twist into end ranges of movement with heavy loads.  If you have trouble understanding why this is bad.  Please read my first post on anti-rotational training.  Please just don’t use these, even if you are a discus thrower.

Sit Up Boards

Fault: If the board has grips for the feet or ankles then you can be sure you will be training your hip flexors at the initiation of the movement, which will induce unnecessary compression unless properly monitored.  Whats the problem with training the hip flexors in this manner?  It can limit the hips range of motion and reactivity, thereby reducing the performance of running, jumping, and kicking (to name a few). If you insist on dong this do yourself a favor and stretch your hip flexors.

Hyperextesnion Machines

Fault:  Besides stressing the knee-joint capsule inappropriately, they don’t permit you to change the height of the foot restraint (or the distance between the hips and the ankles).  This causes hyperextension in the knees which equates to improper movement through the spine (by default). Siff recommends moving slowly so that you may avoid damage to the structures of the knee or spine.  Also, individuals with abnormally high or low blood pressure should be careful due to orthostatic blood pressure changes.

The List Goes On and On

But I think you get the point.  In summary, watch your spine and don’t impose “fake” or “forced” trajectories on the joints.  Simply put, “keep it real.”  If you want to know more read “supertraining” in fact, everyone in fitness should read it.  It’s not easy reading but neither was War and Peace.

The last point is, don’t race against the clock unless you are qualified to do so.  This stuff is getting out of control.  Without pointing the finger (saying crossfit, while coughing) please don’t race against the time unless your movements are qualified.  If you haven’t done a press up or pull up in 2 years don’t just go out and try to do 10 reps by 10 rounds in 10 seconds.   That is just ridiculous.  You don’t need to do that to be “fit” or “loose fat”.

All I am saying is be smart, be safe, be sensible.

-Dr. Anthony


About doctoranthony
As a spinal rehabilitation specialist with over 7 years clinical experience in the areas of - Spinal Manipulative Therapy, Active & Passive Spinal Rehabilitation, Functional Movement and Orthopedic Assessment, Strength and Conditioning Coaching, Fitness Programming, Business Development, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing and Consultancy - you can feel safe knowing that I understand the worry and concern surrounding spinal pain. This is why self-efficacy lies at the heart of my practice. For more info:

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