• Gregory Gordon

Fake (Fitness) News

The Question of Functional Exercise: To Use or Not to Use Exercise Machines

Up until recently, I did not have a nearby gym in my neighborhood, so I was thrilled when a Crunch opened up within walking distance from my apartment a few weeks ago. On one of my first visits, I noticed this sign on the way to the treadmill:

Sadly, “machine” discrimination has become a standard theme at fitness centers large and small.

What is even more perplexing is this:

Yup, that is what it looks like: a gym full of the very equipment they are advising me to use more sparingly. Why would a company disparage the very products they have sunk most of their capital investments in? It's a good question with an answer that relies on fuzzy logic related to the “functional exercise” trend in gym culture.

What is functional exercise?

In the world of movement science, ‘functional’ skills are those such as reaching, grasping, lifting, and locomotion (Magill, 2007). Any exercise that helps a person improve function in any of those skills is considered a ‘functional exercise’. This general definition allows for a wide, multifaceted approach in which many different tools and techniques can be used.

However, ‘functional exercise’ can be a divisive term when it is used in the fitness business. Most commonly, the premise of functional exercise is that, if the body is an interconnected chain of bones, muscles, and tissues, then all links of that chain should be challenged in every exercise.

Interpretations of what constitutes a functional exercise can vary dramatically, however; some exercise regimens will call for movements that seemingly mirror those used in different sports, but because they lack the context of a sport and the myriad of environmental factors that take place, the transfer effect is questionable. In addition to simulating sports activities in the gym (skill training and strength and conditioning should be separate activities) there is an overarching idea that the body is an inter-connected chain, therefore, every exercise should challenge the entire chain because “that’s how we move in real life!” (They, 1999?)

This has led to discrediting other forms that might appear to challenge only one or two joints of the entire body chain, specifically--you guessed it--resistance, aka, selectorized machines for movements such as seated knee extensions. A Paul Chek newsletter (2002) on balance exercises for the elderly population warns that using a fixed axis machine (a selectorized machine like the kind in the picture above) can “disrupt bio-motor integration” and have negative consequences on the “coordination of the motor system as a whole”. Wow! Amazingly, the same article recommends focusing on movements that seniors (and others) do daily, such as squats, bends, and stepping, but then proceeds to demonstrate a series of exercises that entail lying on one’s back on a stability ball and moving side to side declaring that this series of exercises is superior for improving balance.

Chek and others of his ilk often use vague references to motor learning and control theory to lend support to their opinions. To lay gym members (and apparently gym chain owners!) this is enough to scare them off selectorized machines entirely.

Question: Are claims of selectorized machines causing movement dysfunction valid based on supported motor control research?

Let’s take a look…

Uhm, no. The prominent motor control theories of our day, Schmidt’s schema theory (1975) and the Dynamic Patterns Theory (also known as Dynamic Systems Theory) (Kelso, 1984) aim to explain whether or not we store movements in the central nervous system, like saving a file, or if movements spontaneously organize and adapt when certain conditions are available. GENERALLY SPEAKING, Schmidt’s schema theory is based on the concept that movements are stored (at least certain invariant aspects of movement) centrally, similar to saving a file, and when we want to do a certain class of action like walking, jumping, punching, etc., we call upon a basic file for that action and then refine it based on feedback and knowledge of our success in completing our task.

Dynamic Patterns Theory (DPT) is built on the concept that movements are not

stored centrally, but that they spontaneously self organize when certain conditions are present. For example, there is no tornado pattern stored in a universe computer somewhere, but, when certain conditions of wind, temperature, and moisture collide, a tornado erupts. DPT theory states that movements are governed by individual parts of a system that come together and self organize to create a stable, energy efficient state.

The idea that we need to stay away from some machines while others are okay is laughable. The same folks who believe a leg press will turn your brain into mush are fine with treadmills, rowing machines, and step climbers. To paraphrase Dr. Paul Juris, my former boss at Cybex: “How often does our lower body move around a perfect circle i.e pedaling a bicycle, in real life?” The answer is never, yet humans seem to be able to pedal a bicycle without suffering from impaired “bio-motor integration” after getting their feet back on solid ground.

IIssues like loss of stability and the risk of falling in elderly populations typically correlate with diminished ability to produce muscle strength and power. One of the few things we actually do know about the human body is that strengthening muscles, even in “isolation” on an exercise machine can help you improve your ability to produce force and have a transfer effect on improving balance while walking (Pijnappels, et al., 2007). Motor control theories speak to how we may create movements and then modulate them by using visuomotor, feedforward, and feedback mechanisms. Nothing about selectorized machines suggests that you need to avoid using them for fear of temporarily or permanently damaging your motor performance. Get your muscles as strong as you can, and your brain will figure out how to integrate them.



Choose to use or not use selectorized exercise equipment based on scientific support, your access to them, or even your personal preference of feel for exercise. But, please don’t avoid them because you are worried about disrupting “bio-motor integration” or acquiring faulty motor patterns, because there is no evidence to support that.

Exercise selection should not be binary! As much as people want to make it an either/or argument, there isn’t one to be had. It would be like arguing that you should only use a hammer--but what if you have to tighten a screw? A screwdriver would be a lot more effective in that capacity. Use machines, use body weight, use unstable surfaces, because they all have a place, assuming that proper form and program design are in place based on specific aspects of you as the individual and your goals.


Next month’s newsletter will take a biomechanical look at the vaunted TRX band and explore the physics based realities the device can offer, as well as a push up on a traditional flat surface. The results might surprise you, stay tuned!!!

#exercise #functionalexercise #TRX

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