Skip to main content

Fairytales from the gym - The machines are taking over

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I would put in my "fantasy gym". So far, it has a sauna, a ninja warrior gym zone and an underwater treadmill.

One thing that doesn't feature very heavily in my fantasy gym however, is resistance machines.

There are some resistance machines I'm down with. I love a plate loaded leg press. The gym I train at also has what I like to call "the bum machine" (a glute isolator) which allows a lot of load on a movement that is hard to scale. I'm also down with the odd chest press machine and their ilk - they are great for people who are a bit nervous of getting under the bar. There's definitely a place for resistance machines in most people's programming, so I'm not talking about binning them all.

But there's a phenomenon I've noticed in most gyms, where some users - usually the newer, more nervous or untrained users (often long term gymgoers who have just never had any support past induction) base their strength training around having a go on each machine in turn. And I get that, because if you don't know how to plan a balanced workout, a bit of everything seems like a safe bet. And I also get that those racks of dumbells or enormous barbells are daunting.

While I was working out last week, I noticed a pair of new members trying to figure out a preacher (bicep) curl machine. Like most resistance machines it has a number of adjustment one can make to make it fit right, but either these members didn't know how to adjust properly, or the machine just wasn't a good fit for them (which is also common, lots of people really struggle to get comfortable on bi/tri machines). A little while later I overheard one tell the other that they thought they had injured themselves on the machine.

And that my friends, is when I realised I needed to write this post.

Many people think that by sticking with the machines, they are somehow safer, or less likely to "get it wrong". I'm just not convinced by that, and I think that idea lends itself to a lack of care.

Gym doggo says "don't forget your gym towel and water bottle"

Getting the setup right

One of the real benefits of a resistance machine is that when it is set up correctly, it should promote good form through the full range of motion. The issue with this is that not all machines are adjustable enough to correctly fit all shapes and sizes of users, and not all users are taught how to properly adjust every machine in their gym. Or if they are, they can't be expected to recall the exact points of reference for every machine.

For instance, on a bicep curl machine, you want the hinge of the mechanism to align with your elbow. But to get there, you need to be able to get the seat to the right height. Personally I find they are often built for people with longer arms or torsos than I have, and also the having-of-breasts can make it hard to get close enough to the elbow pad. Getting the right set up for a good lift is a little tricky. However, if I grab a dumbell and rest my elbow on a preacher bench or the raised back of a standard bench, my body will find a healthy, ergonomic range of motion with absolutely no problem. Or, if I used a low cable machine set up, and locked my elbows to my sides - magic, everything is right and proper.

If you do prefer to use a resistance machine, that's great too, but get an instructor at the gym to show you how to adjust the machine to "fit" you, and make a note of the key points to check for, or the number on the adjustment lever.

Good form with freeweights.

I'm going to let you in an a magic personal trainer secret here. There are pretty much only 4 types of large movement. There are some smaller movements and isolations which put the cherry on the top of your workout and are important if you are bodybuilding and want every little muscle to pop, but for general fitness, you really only need to know 4 big exercises:
  • The upper body push (press)
  • The upper body pull (row)
  • The hip hinge
  • The quad dominant (squat)
There are of course, literally dozens of variations of each of these, but the cues for correct form are much the same across the board. If you can be aware of the key points for keeping your body in good alignment, then the rest should fall into place.

Firstly - neutral spine. In almost every strength exercise you aim to keep your spine in a neutral position - this is kind of straight, but allowing for the natural curves that spines have. Eyes are straight ahead keeping the neck in line with the rest of the spine.

Now for the specifics:

Upper body push

This is your chest press, push ups, incline press, to an extent your overhead press too.
  • Focus on neutral spine (unless you are powerlifting, but that's a whole other animal), feet on the floor, gaze straight ahead.
  • Wrists straight, first knuckles point in the direction of the movement.
  • Move in line with the mid chest/armpits

Upper body pull

Rows, all the rows, also pull ups.
  • Neutral spine - avoid arching with exertion, or twisting your back in single arm movements.
  • Elbows in
  • Bring hands towards armpits.

Hip hinge

This is your deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning etc. The hips pull back, like if you were stood with your back to a wall, about a foot away, you'd be trying to press your butt on the wall, then snap forward like Lord Flashheart. WOOF!

OK, maybe not quite like that, but you get the idea.
  • Neutral spine
  • Hips slide back, not down
  • Knees do not bend excessively
  • Chest proud at the top
  • Shoulder blades strong

Quad dominant

Here's your squats, lunges etc
  • Neutral spine 
  • Knees point the same way as the toes
  • Weight back (there is a tendency to shift to the toes, sit into your heels in a squat and weight the back foot in a lunge or split squat)
  • Chest proud, imagine someone on the other side of the gym needs to read your shirt
  • Hips low, knees high

So get yourself into the freeweights area

Here's a little starter workout for you to try:

Warm up 

3-5 minutes on your favourite cardio machine, start lazy, increase the speed, level, incline or whatever you like, every 30 seconds or so until you are feeling warm and a bit breathy.


Bend over and reach for your toes, keep your back straight on the way down, reach opposite hand to opposite foot.
Swing your arms from by your sides to over your head a few times.
Hug yourself, open your arms wide and do it with the other arm on top.
Do a couple of back lunges.

Weights - 2-3 sets

Choose a weight that leaves you feeling like you've "had enough" by the last couple of reps.

Farmer's walk - Nice heavy dumbells, keep chest proud - 30 yards walk in laps if necessary
Goblet squat 10-12 reps
Kettlebell deadlift (could use a barbell) 10-12 reps
Dumbell chest press - 12-15 reps
Bent over row 12-15 reps
Split squat 10-12 reps
Overhead press 12-15 reps
Russian twist 10-14 reps

Cool down

Go back through the mobility exercises, then stretch out upper back, chest, quads and hams. Finish with a steady jog or walk on the treadmill to keep things loose.

If you aren't sure how to do some of these, you should go and check out (and subscribe to) my YouTube channel where I have a constantly growing series of no nonsense, straight to the point demos in this playlist.


Popular posts from this blog

Managing Fibromyalgia flares

I've written before about living with EDS and Fibromyalgia ,  much of my personal fitness and health practices are geared around managing those conditions and keeping me as well as I can be. When managing a chronic health condition, particularly one that involves fatigue and potential flare ups, pacing, good nutrition, good sleep and generally taking care of yourself is always the first priority. Ideally we want to have as few flares as possible. But sometimes they still happen, and when they do, it's good to have a strategy in place. And I'm going to be talking in fairly general terms, because while EDS and Fibro are my personal experience, there is so little understanding of the mechanisms behind these conditions, that most strategies are going to be applicable to a number of conditions where crashes of exhaustion and pain are a feature. So what is a flare? A flare is a period where someone with chronic illness suffers increased symptoms for a short while. The

Step away from the scale. Why weigh ins and weight loss don't match.

I have a persistant bugbear when it comes to health coaching, and it's this issue of "weight". People are often talking about "losing weight", the number on the scale becomes a focus. "If only I could just get under 65kg" they say. Or worse I see advertised "buy this supplement and you can lose 20kg in a fortnight". I've found myself frequently sitting with a weight-focussed client and asking "if you were 2 dress sizes smaller, fit and toned, but you weighed the same as you do now, could you be happy with that?" You might be surprised how challenging a question that can be. For many people, particularly those who have struggled with weight loss, that number is the absolute key. They can wake up, feeling energised and full of life, slip into those jeans that used to live hopefully in the bottom of the drawer, check themselves in the mirror and love what they see... then they step on the scales, see the number is half a kilo

What's the deal with yoga and hypermobility?

I wanted to address a question today that keeps coming up on various hypermobility and EDS forums that I frequent. It comes up so often in fact that I feel like I have to write this all up in one place, to save me 1000s of key strokes of individual responses and distil some of my opinions and thought processes on the matter. It always goes like this. Someone asks a question like "I've just been diagnosed with hypermobility, I've been told I can't do yoga anymore..." The responses are always a mixture of "yes, my doctor/physio told me yoga was the worst thing I could do for my hypermobility" and "I do yoga and it's been the best thing for my hypermobility". So what gives? Well, I'm firmly in the "yoga is useful" camp, and I have to disclose that. I'm a yoga practitioner of around 20 years and a perinatal yoga teacher , as well as a personal trainer and bendy person. While I have the deepest respect for the medic

Running with wolves

When I started trying to reverse my post-baby weight gain , I spent several months, probably a year or so really floundering. I was exercising, hard. I didn't feel like I was overeating, but I wasn't losing weight. In fact sometimes I was gaining more and I couldn't figure out why. Often I get personal training clients coming to me with the same problem. They eat wholesome foods with few treats, they exercise hard several times a week, but there's no weight loss. The answer to this problem is a staple for a PT or nutrition coach. It's about activity levels. If I sit on the sofa all day, I burn through just under 2000 calories. If I do a 30 minute HIIT workout, I burn about 200 more. But if I spend my day doing housework, walking to town to do errands and generally being on my feet, I burn 3000 calories or more. It's not the workouts, it's the activity or NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis if you feel fancy). So how do you keep up your NEAT or

Training with Fibromyalgia - a primer for Fitness Professionals

Fitness and Fibromyalgia The second of my posts about training clients with chronic illness ( the first on EDS is here ) Learning how to achieve fitness in a chronically ill body was first my way of life, and later, my profession; as I train or programme for a number of Personal Training clients . I have EDS and Fibromyalgia (which commonly presents alongside EDS). While the physiology and mechanisms behind EDS are relatively well understood, at least in terms of recognising the roles collagen plays in our bodies and the effects of an anomaly, fibromyalgia is a bit of a tricky one. The diagnosis, causes and management of fibromyalgia are not very well understood, and while progress is being made in terms of recognising physiological markers etc, we are still very much in the dark. One thing that is generally agreed on however, is that exercise is good therapy for fibromyalgia, and that's where we come in. Scope of practice Here we go again... Fitness professiona