The Machines Can’t Die

This is the (quasi)counter-argument to the machines vs functional training argument. Eric Stevens contributed an article on his theory that the exercise machines are dead, recently to Breaking Muscle. I enjoy Eric’s writings, and actually, I almost fully agree with the well written article. But…I don’t believe the machines are nearly dead, I believe their is some use for them still. Before diving into this, I do want to say how sad it is to read the comments section under Eric’s article that are littered with (all to common) personal attacks. If anything I respect Eric for putting this article out, which got me thinking a little further on the subject. Here is my take-

Gym Stats



Lets get some real statistics. [1]By the end of 2008 there were 45.5 million people with corporate gym memberships. 66% admitted to never going into the gym leaving us with 15.4 million gym memberships that are getting used. So, no they are not collecting dust. Also, if we declare that certain machines hurt people therefore the machines should be put down, we have to continue that logic into our functional world. Should we boot the deadlift? Its our bread and butter, but it hurts a lot more people than machines do.

You are just a Bench Monkey!

You might be thinking I am a corporate gym rat that hits bench on Mondays. But I am not. I used to be, as most of us functional guys used to be at some point. I own Spartan Fitness in Lenox, Ma. When you step into my gym, the only ‘weight bearing’ machine is a cable Keiser. I love my Keiser. We do loads of functional exercises, traditional powerlifting, and Olympic lifts. We have a broad spectrum of tools and strategies that allow us to target the individual that might have special needs. While all of that functional training is good, we have a ground-up approach. Sometimes we need to start with the very basics, lay down a solid foundation. That tosses the barbell out of the equation and puts in Corrective Exercise strategies. I forgot to mention that I am a Corrective Exercise Specialist. Everyday I am pin-pointing flaws in a person’s mechanics and developing a strategy to fix these issues. Much of this includes the isolation of muscle…not muscle groups, individual muscles.

For many, we integrate these exercises into their program. It becomes a juggling act of functional exercises, powerlifting/olympic lifting, and corrective exercise. For others, we start from the bottom and work up in a linear fashion. What is the point I am trying to get at?


Isolation exercises are not dead. As I stated, these are used everyday in my gym(a functional environment). The result? We have a lot less achy joints, a huge improvement in the quality of movements, and less injury rates. My members (‘Spartans’ as well call them) feel a whole hell of a lot better then when they had trained in the past. That is my ultimate goal; health, and feeling good. The rest is secondary.

If you sign up to the belief that ‘correctives don’t work’ or ‘leave that stuff for physical therapy’, you are greatly missing the point. Correctives do work, if they didn’t, neither would physical therapy. Go ahead and get injured, go under the knife, and I dare you not to get physical therapy, and let things ‘work themselves out’. They won’t. You will be worse off. Correctives simply come from a foundation in physical therapy. As far as ‘leave that stuff for rehab’, isolation exercises in terms of Corrective Exercise are designed as preventative exercise. It is a pro-active take on health, as opposed to a reactive one. Sometimes your squat mechanics can ‘work themselves out’, many times they can’t. Knowing where the flaws reside and how to fix them before someone hurts themselves is a powerful tool. Personally, the most powerful tool I’ve seen used in a fitness setting. I’ve seen where barking cues at your athlete doesn’t work, their heels continue to lift up, the knees collapse in, and the trunk excessively leans forward, correctives is just the more effective alternative to cuing. Not believing in Correctives is a sign someone hasn’t grasped the inner workings of movement science. Movements are not based on mysticism, there is a science behind it. Just as your car doesn’t run on pixie-dust just because you can’t wrap your head around auto mechanics.

When a Corrective Exercise Specialist is not on hand or physical therapy is done and you are ready to add more stimulus, a machine is a great next step. The body or joint(s) being built back up may not by ready for big dynamic movements, swinging a kettlebell, or loading the spine with a barbell.  Having a knowledgeable trainer/therapist to refer to on what particular machines or movements to modify/avoid is going to be greatly beneficial.


The problem for some is that working with a Corrective Exercise Specialist like myself, may not be affordable. While I have different ways to make that more affordable, from group training to classes built strictly on the ground-up approach, for some it is still too expensive. Especially if that person has it engrained in their head that gym memberships cost $10 a month. For some the low cost of a corporate gym is the best that they can do. So in many ways, the machines are more affordable. People seek out my services for the expertise. A machine does not provide that. Knowledge, wisdom, functional training, appropriate programming, and teaching all come with a cost. I allow the machines to be a stepping stone for the masses. It gets them off of the coach and working out. Remember, 113 million people in the United States are considered Inactive (no more that 10 minutes of rigorous exercise per week). That is not including all of the Active Couch Potatoes out there. So, we need to target the masses, not the currently active. In doing so, keeping machines alive provides a stepping stone for people to get active and (fingers crossed) move on to functional training.


I’ve trained a bodybuilder that went on to win first place in his age division. We did all of our training in a functional setting. But, lets be honest. He had a traditional gym background where he focused his attention on loads of isolation. Our strategy and programming was a bit of a shock to his traditional routine, that’s what he wanted, to ‘shock the system’. It worked.

But traditional bodybuilding is built around machines and isolation. It is the perfect setting for these guys and gals. Bodybuilding routines work very well for what they are trying to accomplish. I give them all the credit in the world for their dedication and sheer volume to training, machines or not. From what I can gather, bodybuilding is just as strong today as it was in the 80’s.

Can bodybuilding strategies be incorporated into functional/athletic goals? Here is a solid article on how athletes can benefit from some hybrid training from Nick Tumminello. As Nick states:

“They can’t possibly think the CNS is so fragile that a few sets of isolation exercises or a few sets on weight machines per each week will somehow offset the functional abilities and movement skills acquired from hours and hours of sports practice and competition that athletes rack up each week.”

So adding some isolation/machines to a person with functional goals is not the end of the world. There may be more benefit than one would assume.


One strategy used in some classic powerlifting is the use of overloading. Occasionally overloading the amount of weight that I can press/lift/squat while on a machine can make small increases in maxes when going back to the free weight version. There are dozens of strategies for improving lifts, but at least one of those includes machines. For those powerlifters in the ‘globo’ gyms, the access to a machine is far easier than that of a bamboo bar with bands and kettlebells hanging from it.

I don’t wish the machines a bloody death, I predict they will be around for a long time, as they still have a use(bodybuilding, affordability, correctives, overloading). I do think that the corporate gyms could make better use of the space. Eliminate a few machines, open up the floors space and integrate in more dynamic movements. Better strategies would need to be put in place to teach people how execute these exercises with the best form possible. Teaching the members why functional exercises are so beneficial. This in turn might open the flood gates and draw in more business for the trainers at these facilities. Sitting a client on a machine while you check your text messages is a disservice.