Beware the Rise of the Machines!

Youth Fitness: Beware the Rise of the Machines!

by Phil Hueston, NASM-PES; IYCA-YFS
Co-Owner, All-Star Sports Academy/Athletic Revolution-Toms River now you all know that All-Star is involved in the youth fitness industry. In fact, we've been told that we're changing the way people think about youth and sports fitness in our area. So, as you can imagine, we're pummeled with marketing and advertising for the "newest," "most cutting edge" and "next generation" of selectorized and fixed-position equipment for youth fitness.

The thing that strikes me as odd about this stuff is that it looks like "Mini-Me" versions of the same crappy, dangerous machines that parents and adults are getting unfit and unhealthy on in their "health clubs!" Fixed position, uni-planar, single movement "fitness" equipment that nearly always creates injury patterns in the people who use them.

Ugh! We uniformly smile and say "no thanks" when the sales rep is done telling us how amazing his companies latest innovation in youth training is and how it will revolutionize our business. Most of them get the hint. We're not interested in strength training matter who they are designed for.

It's our belief that you arrive at our facility with the most important piece of equipment already "attached" to you. The human body is the most complex piece of exercise and functional movement equipment ever designed, and we really don't think that strapping it into a fixed pile of metal is really the answer to getting fitter, stronger, faster and better.

Yes! Building muscle will help you lose body fat, gain strength and perform better! Yes! Regularly performing resistance training will help build muscle! Yes! These machines were "engineered" to maximize (isolated) muscular output! Yet a strange thing has happened to American adults, even those who use these machines to "get in shape!"

They've become so dependent on them that they no longer are capable of performing strength building exercises without the artificial "intelligence" provided by these contraptions! So when the time comes to apply their newly developed "strength," they either get injured or realize they aren't nearly as "strong" as the numbers on their exercise machines would indicate!

Add to this the fact that more back, shoulder, knee, ankle and hip injuries are caused by the use of these torture machines in a year than in the NFL in 10 years, and it makes me wonder.  It makes me wonder why we'd shove our children onto this junkyard fodder in the first place! Yet that's what thousands of parents and coaches are doing right now in an effort to prevent childhood obesity, help their kids play sports better and "develop good habits."

The reality that these well-meaning folks aren't aware of is that it isn't working. Kids inherently know when something they are doing is 1.) not fun, 2.) not right and 3.) not gonna work. They may not express it in those terms, but the unwillingness to jump in the car and zip over to "Postural Distortions R Us," better known as Mom and Dad's Big Box, McFitness Health Club should be a loud and clear signal.

The reality that is largely ignored by the health club industry and the equipment manufacturers who service the industry is this:

The human body is designed to perform multi-planar, multi-dimensional movements in a variety of ways with variable resistance and speed. It suffers dramatically when forced to perform repeated movements, with or without load, in a single plane of movement and without the freedom and ability to stabilize itself in space during those movements.

In other words, we are meant to turn the beast loose! Exercise should look like life, not like a scene from a film about the Spanish Inquisition!

Most people who "go to the gym" just don't seem happy about it. Maybe we can figure out why by looking at some of the contraptions they have to strap, seat and shove themselves into

This is a selectorized seated leg press. Most health clubs will show this contraption during their membership sales tour. They are notorious for creating glute dysfunction, knee instability and lumbar spine problems.

The movement needed to be effective on this piece of equipment resembles absolutely nothing you might ever do in sports or in life.

Most are designed for people between 5'3" and 6'3" tall. Do YOU know how to set this up perfectly for you?

Most adults have no idea how. Imagine trying to make it work for a 5'0" 11 year old.

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This little beauty is called a "Pec Dec." The handles you see usually swing all the way from front to back, with a wide variety of handle positions. The potential for injury here is staggering.

Even with the seat height set "correctly," the body is in such a position as to put massive amounts of undue stress on the anterior portion of the gleno-humeral joint in the stretching phase of motion and can cause the muscles in the posterior portion of the shoulder girdle to stiffen.

Forward rolling of the shoulder during movement can lead directly to injury.

Add to this the fact that the work being performed is essentially non-functional to begin with and you quickly arrive at the thought that its' best use is as a place to hang your sweatshirt while you bang out some push-ups.


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This is a seated leg extension. If your trainer leads you to one of these, run, while you still can. The stated purpose of this torture device is to strengthen the quadriceps muscles by loading the extension-flexion cycle of the knee.

Problems: leg extensions tend to increase reaction force in the patella-femoral joint, knee movement and joint stress in the common range of motion. In other words, they reduce knee stability and create pain in everyday knee movements like walking and running. They also lead to tight hip flexors (a key ingredient of back pain and unstable knees), deviation in the patella (kneecap) and weak hamstrings.

Clearly, the dangers outweigh the benefits for kids.


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As our last example, we'll look at the seated shoulder press machine. These are designed to take the place of a standing dumbbell or barbell shoulder press.

Seat shapes vary. Some have lumbar "support" that actually creates an abnormal lordotic position for loading of the shoulder girdle. Often, users will arch their backs while pressing up, creating an unstable condition in the lumbar and even the thoracic spine.

Additionally, this arching motion takes the gleno-humeral joint out of its' optimum position to perform the overhead press, thereby placing undue stress on the stabilizers in the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff and labrum can take a beating from this one.


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We know that "free-form" functional exercises, those that mimic real-life and sports movements, not only result in better movement patterns (think injury-resistance), they burn more calories and build more muscle! That's right, functional integrated training stimulates the development of a far greater number of muscles than isolated, fixed position machine training.

Weight training machines are built to artificially stabilize the body and reduce complex, functional movement down to single plane, "isolated" movements. In other words, they are really designed to help people avoid more difficult-to-master, functional movement! The leg press is usually recommended to people who "can't" squat because they claim it hurts their knees. Lots of muscleheads who are big Pec Dec can't do push-ups to save their lives.

Here's the "dirty little secret:" the leg press will do more to de-stabilize the knee and cause pain during movement than squatting will, in most cases. When performed correctly, squatting has the effect of creating high levels of functional stability in the knee, thereby working to decrease knee pain during movement.

While good squat form may be a challenge to master, squatting will develop far higher levels of functional strength. As important is this pleasant bonus: squats help athletes develop total body, multi-planar strength and power, compared with the limited strength developed on fixed position, artificially stabilized exercise machines designed to "isolate muscle groups." (More on this fallacy in the future!)

Squats, lunges, lower body plyometrics and other functional movements are clearly the way to go for youth fitness and development. In fact, for kids under 13, our experience has shown that the fastest improvements in strength, power, speed and agility result from effective and proper instruction in and consistent application of bodyweight-oriented exercise.

Boys develop more functional upper-body strength from performing form-correct push-up variations 2-3 days per week than on the bench press or pec dec. Girls develop far superior knee stabilization and hip and leg strength by performing good squats and lunges than they could ever generate on the leg press, leg extension or leg curl machines.

Exercise machines fix the body in the sagittal plane (think straight ahead.) This artificial stability virtually eliminates the need to manage frontal plane (think side to side) and transverse plane (think rotation and turning) forces during movement. It absolutely prevents any level of mastery as it regards the ability to perform frontal and transverse plane movements. When you are strapped or locked in to fixed position exercise machines, it is the fitness equivalent of trying to jump rope while strapped to a medieval rack!

So, how then should children exercise in order to avoid the onslaught of the machines? Science tells us that ground-based training, with an emphasis on bodyweight stabilization exercises first, followed by a progression to bodyweight/implement based strength training, integrated along with speed, agility, balance, flexibility and power training, is the key to youth fitness and sports training success!

Here are some replacements for exercise machines that will actually work:

Instead of the leg press, try squats (bi-lateral, single-leg, step-ups, lunges, lower body plyo's - jumps and landings)

Instead of leg curls/extensions, try (See above) plus stability ball leg tucks, bridges

Instead of the Pec Dec, try push-ups, tube/band flyes, kettlebell floor press

Instead of seated shoulder press, try standing barbell/dumbbell/kettlebell press,
dumbbell raises.

Instead of seated lat pulldown, try pull-up/chin-up variations

Of course, every strength & conditioning or fitness program will benefit from consistent application of flexibility, mobility and core activation and strength training. Those are topics for another day and another article.

The point here is simply to illustrate the shortfalls and hazards of typical exercise machines and to explain the importance and reasons to focus on functional, multi-planar exercise for any fitness purpose. Functional, ground-based (where possible) and form-correct movements will always be superior to any "state of the art" exercise machine.

Better fitness levels for everyone? Higher levels of sports performance? And all of this while drastically reducing injury and extending athletic careers? Yes, yes and yes!

The strategy is simple...resist the "rise of the machines!" Your future depends on it!

This is NOT Phil's "head shot"...This is NOT Phil's "head shot"...

As co-owner of All-Star Sports Academy and Co-Head Coach at Athletic Revolution - Toms River, NJ, Phil Hueston has been - and continues to be - a sought after Sports Performance Trainer and Consultant to teams and athletes at the Youth Sports, high school, collegiate and professional levels. Since his entrance into the fitness industry in 1998, he has questioned the status quo, challenged the conventional wisdom of the fitness industry and used the answers to make his clients better, bigger, faster and stronger.

Not just another pretty trainer, Phil has been called a "master motivator and trainer of high school athletes" and a "key player in the Youth Fitness industry." He works with athletes from 6 to 60, helping them all reach their performance potential and maximize their "fun quotient." Phil recognized early on that the ONLY task of Sports Fitness Professionals is the improvement of their clients' sports performance and their enjoyment of the process! Having worked with 1000's of athletes, he's assisted them on their journeys to collegiate sports, Division 1 scholarships, pro and semi-pro sports careers and even the 1st round of the NHL Draft.

He can be reached at All-Star Sports Academy, 1740 Route 9, Toms River, NJ, by phone at 732-597-3725 or through the website at