Friday, January 28, 2011

Why your gym isn’t working
How many times have you been told to start with a little stretching? Yet multiple studies of pre-workout stretching demonstrate that it actually raises your likelihood of injury and lowers your subsequent performance. Turns out muscles that aren’t warmed up don’t really stretch anyway, and tugging on them just firms up their resistance to a wider range of motion. In fact, limbering up even has a slackening effect on your muscles, reducing their stability and the amount of power and strength they’ll generate.

Cardio machines are innocent enough, as they won’t actually make you any less fit, but maintaining cardiovascular fitness doesn’t really take much more than breathing uncomfortably hard for about 20 minutes, three times a week. And we all know that swimming, hoops, bike riding, and even Ultimate Frisbee can get the job done, and that treadmills or elliptical trainers are a pale substitute.

Weight machines, on the other hand, are far more insidious because they appear to be a huge technological advance over free weights. But quite the opposite is true: Weight machines train individual muscles in isolation, while the rest of you sits completely inert. This works okay for physical therapy and injury rehab, and it’s passable for bodybuilding, but every serious strength-and-conditioning coach in America will tell you that muscle-isolation machines don’t create real-world strength for life and sport.

Most gyms do include a few token free weights, but think about where you’ll find them: around the edges of the room, like fresh fruits and vegetables in a supermarket that gives all the prime middle-of-the-store shelf space to Frosted Flakes and frozen cheesecake. Truly indispensable gear — like the good old-fashioned adjustable barbell rack, the sine qua non of any remotely serious gym — has, by contrast, become a downright rarity. As for niche but no less important equipment like an Olympic lifting platform, forget about it: The lawyers would never let it through the door.

Here’s the problem: If you’re in the fitness-equipment business, free weights are a loser. The 2010 model looks too much like the 1950 model, and they both last forever. Far better to create gleaming $4,000 contraptions that can be reinvented every two years, and then hire a PR firm to promote some made-up training theory claiming that machines are the answer, like the now infamous HIT — or High Intensity Training — approach sold by Arthur Jones, inventor of the original Nautilus machines, that explained how moving quickly through an entire, complete circuit of, you guessed it, Nautilus machines, would help you reach your true potential. Meanwhile, the real reason your gym has so many strength machines is that anybody can figure out how to use them, and they make injury nearly impossible.

Commercial health clubs need about 10 times as many members as their facilities can handle, so designing them for athletes, or even aspiring athletes, makes no sense. Fitness fanatics work out too much, making every potential new member think, Nah, this place looks too crowded for me. The winning marketing strategy, according to
Recreation Management Magazine, a health club–industry trade rag, focuses strictly on luring in the “out-of-shape public,” meaning all of those people whose doctors have told them, “About 20 minutes three times a week,” who won’t come often if ever, and who definitely won’t join unless everything looks easy, available, and safe. The entire gym, from soup to nuts, has been designed around getting suckers to sign up, and then getting them mildly, vaguely exercised every once in a long while, and then getting them out the door.

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