I had a patient ask me the other day about exercising, specifically about an exercise she was doing in a gym, using a machine, for her low back.
While I generally LOVE people exercising, and taking the time to make themselves stronger, to maintain muscle mass so they can do the stuff they want to do for as long as possible, my answer to her was to STOP doing the exercise.
Why would I tell someone, who is exercising, to stop?
Because the particular exercise she was doing, was not only NOT beneficial for her low back, but would very likely INJURE her if she continued doing it.
In fact, she prefaced her question about the exercise by telling me that she’d hurt herself, and was sore from exercising.
She then asked me why the gym would have machines that were potentially not beneficial, and may very well injure someone.
A good question.
I explained to her that my recommendation for back exercises, and really for ALL exercises, are COMPOUND exercises, ones that recruit multiple joints and multiple muscles with the same exercise. NOT exercises that isolate one muscle group, which is what most machine exercises do.
Why is this?
Because we live our lives through compound movements. When you are climbing the stairs, you are using multiple joints and multiple muscles at the same time.
When you’re squatting down to lift something, you are using multiple joints and multiple muscles at the same time. With virtually EVERYTHING that you do, you are using multiple joints and muscles AT THE SAME TIME.
So WHY would you do an exercise that isolates only one particular joint, and one muscle, to make it strong, while totally ignoring and separating it from the other joints and muscles you use it with for 99% of the things you do.
It does not make sense.
Not only is it a great way to injure yourself because the strength of your muscles and joints will be OUT OF BALANCE, but when you do isolation exercises (only focusing on one muscle), exercising takes SO MUCH LONGER. And in my opinion, it’s also much more boring.
Think about it. If you do a squat, you target your calves, your quads, your hamstrings, your gluts, your low back, and a bunch of other stabilizing muscles and joints, ALL WITH ONE MOVEMENT. 3 sets of those, and you’re done.
If you were to do isolation exercises, likely using machines, for each of those body groups, it would take you 5x longer to exercise all of those areas. The ultimate result would NOT be 5x better, but likely worse, because the muscles were not exercised as you’d normally use them, but in isolation, so in a totally artificial way.
The other issue with machines is that they do all the stabilization work for you, which is not a good thing.
It likely means you can use more weight, but also means that all the really important stabilization muscles are not worked properly, are not strengthened, and become out of balance with the other larger muscle groups, which is a great way to get injured.
This is how so many people end up injuring their shoulders, because the rotator cuff muscles, the small STABILIZING muscles, are weak, and out of balance, with the larger muscle groups.
In general, try to avoid the use of machines, because they force you to isolate specific muscle groups, unlike your real life, which is all about using muscles and joints in combination.
Rather, try to do simple, compound exercises. The ones I typically recommend are things like planks, side planks (both great for the core), squats, push-ups, and some version of a pull up.
If you did these, even doing easier modifications to start with, you’d be far less likely to be injured, spend way less time exercising because they are working multiple areas with one exercise, would need way less equipment (or none at all), and would experience significantly more benefit and gains over time.
They may not be fancy, but they have stood the test of time…because they work.
Any questions about any of this, please feel free to contact us.
Dr. Byron Mackay