The question: Now that winter is coming, I want to use my gym more often. What are the best all-round machines for strength training? What are your favourites? Which should I avoid?
The answer: As a rule, I am not a huge fan of machines. Since they guide the body through the required movement, sophisticated communication between the brain and muscles is not needed. When the body is guided by a machine, the body's proprioceptive ability (i.e. the body's ability to know where it is in time and space) is not challenged. Most machines also don't require the body to recruit small stabilizing muscles, such as the deep core muscles or rotators of the shoulders. And since many machines work both sides of the body at the same time, the stronger side of the body takes over. This means your weaker side never improves.
Although body placement can be beneficial if you are a newbie exerciser or recovering from an injury, once you are more comfortable in the gym, I recommend using equipment like dumbbells that allow for more functional, fluid motion.
I do use machines, but sparingly, as an adjunct to equipment such as dumbbells and barbells. I suggest you do the same. Spend the winter using the pull-up bar, dumbbells, barbells, the resistance ball and the bosu ball. With these pieces of equipment, you can do multijoint exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups, the bench press, pull-ups, rows, pull downs and core exercises like the plank.
I have two main exceptions to my "no-machine" rule. I use the cable machine and the pull-down machine on a regular basis. I especially love the cables because you can use them to work your entire body. Plus, they don't place your body in a specific position, which means they teach body awareness and allow your limbs to move independently, so your stronger side does not dominate.
Trainer's Tip: if you get bored of squats and lunges, throw in cable exercises like the wood chop, lunge and rows and standing rotations. If you are not familiar with these three cable exercises look on globeandmail.com for videos of me demonstrating these exercises using the resistance band. At the gym, substitute the cable machine for the band.
Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.
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