Many understand the advantages of using free weights over machines for strength training, yet ignore these when they perform cardio. They use rowers, bikes, ellipticals, and other contraptions.
I also subscribed to this philosophy at one point. These machines will definitely raise your heart rate. They also give an ease of measurability. The time, rate, and resistance are easily monitored.
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As we build upon previous work, it seems sensible to believe that complex solutions work best. Many fitness trends exploit this mentality. The intricate machine should work better than the barbell. The elliptical functions better than running up a flight of stairs.
While newer is better in many cases beyond fitness, cardio machines bring the same flaws as applying machines to lifting. Our bodies evolved to handle free weights. We pushed and pulled heavy objects, walked, and sprinted. Our muscles, joints, and systems expect these demands. We are organic machines that have run the same operating system for many centuries.
Free weights are objects free to move within all three planes. They are unbound to any axis. This includes using our bodyweight. The evidence is clear that our bodies handle free weight, compound exercises best, not just for lifting but for cardio as well. We developed to overcome gravity.
The arguments in favor of free weights for lifting overlap those for cardio. Nonetheless, some unique reasons exist as well.
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- More muscle works with free weights.
The big three for lifting will work the stabilizers. They hold your position but may not get quite enough work. Cardio performed with intervals gives us the chance to work the stabilizers more directly. Machines will prevent this by keeping you to a set path.
They also train more muscle. A bike may involve just the lower body, while a sprint relies on the power produced by the upper body as well. Using all the limbs intensely together elevates the heart rate further, stressing the senders of the cardiovascular system better.
- Free weights stress multiple systems better.
This applies not only to strength training but cardio as well. Resisted sprinting will elevate the heart rate more so than any other activity since more total muscle works. More muscle will also affect the hormones to a greater degree.
Free weights require more concentration that still remains reasonable. This keeps you attuned to the exercise.
- Machines lock you into unnatural movement patterns.
Injuries can occur over time. You can get hurt through many poor repetitive motions as opposed to just a catastrophic event. Cardio machines that force you to use bad mechanics will lead to joint issues, not just lifting heavy weights with bad exercises. Maybe not today but perhaps some day soon.
Biking causes too much flexion of the knee without enough hip extensor activation to balance it out. This leads to anterior knee stress, just like the leg extension.
Rowing encourages spinal flexion. Any movement away from a neutral position for the lower back can harm it.
The Airdyne bike, while effectively involving the whole body, can stress the shoulder by forcing your elbows to flare.
The treadmill can change your natural stride length since the belt pulls at your feet and it allows no wind resistance.
Holding the handles on an elliptical encourages you to lean forward and flex the spine, instead of working your postural muscles.
Other machines rely on odd lateral motions that work muscles meant to stabilize.
You often must adjust many settings to make these machines feel decent. Even if you get them as right as possible, these still require enough of a difference away from our optimal movement patterns. This may affect you when you return to everyday life, especially as an athlete.
- Machines may hurt you directly.
On a treadmill or stair climber, the motor continues to power it even if you need to stop immediately. You may be able to quickly pull an emergency plug to disable the machine, if your levels of fatigue allow you to do this in time. With a free weight exercise, you simply stop moving.
For someone that has worked hard to train at a high intensity, this represents a real concern. You should feel able to work hard without risking injury.
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- Machines may encourage bad habits.
Many will hold onto the railing for the treadmills, even though this could never occur during real walking. They will overuse their arms on the ellipticals. These bad habits may cause issues during normal life or lead to one of the problems mentioned here.
- Machines may mislead you.
The heart rate monitor, the calories burned, and other metrics are often inaccurate or irrelevant.
- Machines force a pace.
The ebb and flow of cardio and exercise in general should allow the pace to increase or decrease. Short reprieves can clear some lactic acid or prepare your mind, allowing you to continue.
- Machines may limit intensity.
Ellipticals make it hard to apply the utmost effort. They have an odd bouncing rhythm that makes you struggle to apply much force. This flaw affects other machines too. This will limit how high the heart rate can climb and develop less muscular endurance.
- Machines avoid impact forces.
Many will list this as an advantage, but this is shortsighted.
Impact forces give a stimulus for bone and joint health. We are meant to handle compression over shear. The best cardio options apply the right stress to stimulate connective tissue growth.
Cardio with free weights will have more impact forces but if applied correctly this will benefit you. Avoid overtraining and rest as needed.
- Machines provide distractions.
You may focus on the display instead of the effort. Dissociation during exercise is a poor strategy. You must stay fully engaged in your task to achieve your best performance.
Avoid Cardio Machines
If you have ever pushed yourself on a rower or Airdyne, you have no doubt that these can work as cardio. Are they as effective and safe as the free weight alternatives though?
Perform anything unrestricted that uses plenty of movement throughout the body. I suggest sprinting, stairclimbing, or jumping. I also recommend slowing yourself down with weight by using a sled or vest. This makes these choices safer and gives you another way to progress beyond speed. Just be careful that the impact forces do not grow excessive. Make sure you rest between sessions as needed.
Consider walking or brief jogs between these workouts. This will speed your recovery, help you to handle stress better, and give other health benefits beyond peak fitness.
Stick with these options and ignore the cardio machines.