Saturday, June 16, 2007

Free Weights & Home Gyms

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll know I believe weight training should be part of everyone’s fitness regime. It wasn’t always that way. Right up until I was a young man I believed weights were pretty much for muscle-bound oafs who placed physical appearance over athletic performance. This changed when I started running competitively and was told to begin weight training to improve my overall speed. The apparent contradiction between lifting to build heavy muscle and increasing mileage to reduce weight caused me to look into weight training more closely. I learned it didn’t necessarily build heavy, bulky muscles and by using weights I could pretty well design my body to look, and up to a point perform, the way I wanted. And like many converts I became a devotee. When I finished competitive running I continued weight training, even increasing the number of my workouts to add some much needed bulk to my frame.

When I left the Harriers and their weight program behind I needed to make a decision on whether to join a sports gym or set something up at home. A home based gym meant I would be restricted in the amount of usable weights; whereas a membership in a fully equipped gym would provide unlimited weights with the necessary spotters plus all the machines I could want. There was really no question – I went with the home gym. First of all you can almost smell the testosterone in a weight room and working out in one gets my competitive fires going. Even though I’ve always trained low weight/high reps for enduring rather than explosive strength I invariably start to use heavier and heavier weights until I'm on the verge of risking injury (if I feel pressured and out of place I can’t imagine what a woman thinks). Aside from avoiding asinine displays of machismo the best thing about a home gym is its accessibility. I don’t want to spend even half an hour on the road going to and fro to the gym and then waiting for somebody else to finish with a particular machine or bench I want to use. Having weights at home allows me to fit training into what is a busy life. Besides which, unless you’re really, really serious about body building, all those extra weights and weight machines at a professional gym don’t bring much to the party.

First thing you need to know about training with weights is the muscle community is unanimous about the advantages of free weights (meaning barbells, dumbbells, weight benches and the various sized weights you slide on and off) over full spectrum exercise equipment such as Nautilus or Bowflex, and novelty equipment such as elliptical trainers. These exercise machines are sold on ease of use, convenience, and safety where the buyer can quickly finish a complete workout in a mere half hour or less without risk of injury – all in a nice tidy package you can store against the wall when not in use. But things aren’t entirely the way they’re presented.

Let's admit it, lifting weights is ‘heavy work’ and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s the primary reason why weight lifting is so beneficial in achieving overall fitness; yet most people, especially women, are very adverse to strenuous physical labour. Manufacturers of full spectrum exercise equipment are well aware of this bias and stress their products’ advantages in transitioning from set to set by emphasizing how quickly workouts can be completed using their equipment. To the uninitiated the twenty or thirty minutes in time savings may sound efficient and less tiring but experienced weight lifters already employ rapid transition from one set to the other (easily done in a pro gym with multiple sets of weights) called supersets. Supersets are to lifting weights what running up stairs is to jogging, not something you want to do all the time. Unless your training regime specifically calls for supersets you’ll want to take a breather and spending that time changing weights isn’t so bad. Practically speaking I budget a work out for around an hour and a quarter (around twenty minutes warm up/stretching plus close to an hour actual lifting), though light in-season training sessions often take less than an hour start to finish.

Machines also don’t require the user to have any knowledge of lifting techniques, something absolutely required to use free weights as incorrect lifting can make the exercise ineffective, or even worse, damage the targeted muscles. A full spectrum weight machine employs its weights in a carefully designed environment; the user just pulls or pushes while everyone without will have to spend the time to learn the proper technique. A reputable gym will have instructors and, for those who go the home gym route, there are a multitude of excellent books which will walk you through each exercise’s requirements step-by-step. More important is the question of how to safely handle the sometimes significant amount of weights. Nautilus or Bowflex by virtue of their construction place the weights away from the user where no injury can result from a drop other than possibly some deafening from the crashing clatter of the plates coming together. No such luck in free weights and every year there are fatalities and many serious injuries caused by lifting accidents. A gym can provide the necessary spotters, but they aren’t necessarily a guarantee against injury, especially when very heavy weights are involved. And of course working out of a home gym you’re on your own. To complicate matters there are many exercises which call for repetitions to continue until failure (the inability to make another lift), something clearly not prudent to do outside a gym. The only right way to train at home is to deliberately limit lifts to a total which can be handled with a margin of safety even on the last rep of the last set. Endurance training and general fitness can work with this limitation, but if you’re going for vastly increased bulk or muscle definition the home route isn’t for you. Big, heavy and cut muscles need to be worked hard – that testosterone laden gym with all those weights and your buddies providing the necessary spotting is the place to be.

Why then the antagonism of professional trainers to full spectrum weight machines? Well it has to do with the concern I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the problem of building muscles which look good but prove to be worthless in the real world. Muscles work in groups and the complex interplay between them is practically impossible to duplicate outside of real life. For athletes continuous hard training develops muscles referred to as sport specific – the right kind of muscle for the demands being placed on them. A lumberjack will develop different muscles from a swimmer, and a farmer will have a different muscle emphasis than a discus thrower. When you start substituting training for the real thing, however, one has to accept compromises on the specificity of the muscle being built. Free weights by their nature tend to employ many of the same muscle groups used in real life; but weight machines, because of those very attributes cited earlier for safety in use, are notorious for ignoring the multitude of small balancing muscles normally involved. Of course machines have their use in targeting specific muscles which are difficult to train such as the calves. So though free weights are acknowledged as supreme machines too have their rightful place in the gym. Full spectrum exercise machines, however, fail on both counts. As machines they suffer from their genre’s inability to work muscles in a complete manner, and as general purpose training equipment they cannot target individual muscles the way the specialized equipment can. So if you do decide to start up a gym at home make your decision wisely and don’t get stuck with something which in the long run won’t produce the results your efforts would deserve. But do something somewhere - it's important for your health.


Joe said...

I'm with you Scott, on every point you made. I workout at home, with free weights. I also like Therabands too -- they are so easy to bring anywhere.

Scott said...

The most important thing about exercise is making it part of your life and never going away from it. Even twenty minutes a day will make a big difference over the years but it's really easy to start skipping workouts.

P.S. I'm going to have to get some Therabands - I've seen some good exercise programs, especially warm ups, which employ them in their recommended sets.