The Best Piece of Exercise Equipment

In about .7 seconds, I got 54,900,000 results when I typed in fitness equipment to Google. That means there is just about 60 million websites that are offering advice on machines that you can use to shape muscle, rev you heart rate and condition your joints. With all of those options you really could spend hours, days and weeks trying to figure out just what the in the world you should get yourself to chase after your fitness related goals. So what do you do?

I think I have probably been asked this same question about 54,900,000 times myself over the 15 years or so. The answer is very simple. My goal as a trainer is to get people to move more efficiently and pain-free, so I always say, “Get yourself a set of dumbbells.” Here’s why.

Resistance Machine vs. Dumbell Weight Training

The biggest problem with machine-based exercise training and workouts, is that they put too much emphasis on “primary muscles.”  Basically you muscular system is broken up into two types of muscle. The first being your primary muscles(type 2 fibers), which are  generally responsible for large movement’s needed for movement accuracy, force, speed and anaerobic strength. These are the “bigger muscles,” like your chest, back, shoulders, and legs.  In terms of machines that you use at the gym, think chest press, leg press and seated row. All resistance training deals with downward forces of gravity but strength training machines are designed such that pulleys, levers and cams are positioned to where postures can be manipulated such that gravity is re-directed and can be directly opposed to the working muscles. Effectively, muscles can be more or less “isolated.”

Now the truth is that machines will definitely get you stronger, and can certainly create enough tissue damage to promote muscle hypertrophy. There is no doubt  that if you consistently and repeatedly lift with progressive overload anything against downward forces of gravity you will get stronger. I think the first example of this in all of history was the Greek wrestler Milo of Croton.


According to legend, Milo trained by carrying a calf daily from its birth until it became a full-sized ox. He is also said to have carried an ox on his shoulders through the stadium at Olympia. Now, I am not saying that my advice to you is to purchase a baby calf and start lugging him around, but my point is that with progressive overload, your body will adapt. Basically, this is a way of saying that if you consistently and progressively change your workout program and challenge your body you will get stronger, more voluminous and more metabolic muscle.

Your body is also made up postural muscles ( type-1 fibers). The primary job of these muscles is basically to maintain your body’s posture at all times. This means they are used during big the big three S’s (sleep, stand and sit) and during dynamic moving like running, jumping and squatting, as well. You will find these muscles pretty much surrounding every joint in your body, but the place most people have questions about is the core.

The core is the area on the boy that rests between the ball and socket joint of shoulders and the hips, which are meant to be very mobile. In the middle of the core is where your spine rests. The muscles that are attached to the spine are designed to prevent and slow down movement.

The beef with strength-training machines is that, once you sit down on any of this pieces of equipment you reduce just how much you will use your core musculature. You limit just how much the postural muscles get turned on and that is not a good thing. There is a saying in exercise science that “You either use it or lose it.”

From a potential injury standpoint, machine based training seems likely to open the door for risk. You have to understand that your body is a long-chain of muscles that talk to each other. When you do exercises that don’t ask your whole body to cooperate with all of the parts of itself, you basically are limiting the chances your body communicating effectively. For example, the muscles of your foot may not pass the message to the muscles of your lower leg to say to your butt “HEY…do something up there, will ya!!!” if they continuously aren’t trained appropriately. This means that other parts have to pick up the slack and that’s just not good.

Now does this mean if you are to sit on an exercise machine once a workout…POOF! it is all gone? No, by no means it doesn’t mean that all. The way I look it is they can always be a supplementary part of your workout but people in general need to learn body positioning, mechanics and postures to overcome the forces of gravity. Gravity isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and we need to prepare our bodies how to react to it. That’s why dumbells are so great…they offer versatility.

Dumbells have this great advantage over machines in that you can perform an endless combination of exercises at varying, heights, speeds, durations, and loads from different starting positions that allow for the all the parts of your body to talk to the whole.  The list below demonstrates all of the actions that you can perform with a set of dumbells, all of which we do on a regular basis as fully functioning humans.


Of course if you are alive and mobile you probably could have rattled off a list very similar to this. Whether you exercise or not, the list isn’t really very science-y. What we can do with it and how we can vary it may be very valuable though.

All of these actions are subject to UNILATERAL LOADING. Basically, this means to carry or hold the dumbell on just one side. Like, in the real world when you carry your baby on your hip or groceries in a sack. You can take a single dumbbell and perform exercises with weight on just one side of your body. Think about the challenges that you have going up a flight of stairs while holding your oversized purse on just one shoulder. That challenge is due to you having to step upwards while your core is trying to keep your shoulders above your hips and your head centered while loaded weight on one side is pulling you down harder than the other.

You see one of the basic tenets of functional anatomy, is that body will manipulate itself to maintain an eye level even with the horizon. Meaning that those old V-8 commercials in which the person who didn’t drink the V-8 would walk around slanted towards the ground could not possibly be true! This also means that each time we train with one half of the body being asked to prevent contralateral forces ready to pull us down our core muscles will be forced to work.

So give it a shot. Next time you workout, pass up machine training in favor of doing dumbbell training with weight in just one hand.



Categories: helpful ideas


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