So I had a conversation with my mother last night regarding this subject. My mom asked me to give her some personal training sessions as part of a Christmas present. So naturally, I wrote a program for her of exercises to do on her own. Last night, she calls me and asks about switching to a commercial gym and asks me about using the machines, as opposed to using free weight or bodyweight exercises.
This is NOT about machines vs. free weights! The point I made to my mom is that machines can be great for isolating muscles and helping them develop individually. However, since she is at the very beginning stage of learning how to train and essentially, learning how to move properly. So the question is not machines vs. free weights, but should we train muscles or movements?
The overly simplistic answer is that training muscles is for bodybuilding and training movement is for everyone else. While this isn’t completely untrue, it’s a little short-sided. If I’m working with someone who is a beginner, even if they are exclusively interested in bodybuilding, I am teaching them the proper movement pattern for the basic exercises. Also, if I’m rehabbing from an injury (which I currently am), I need to re-learn how to move properly.
The fact is that you can grow muscles while you are training movements AND you can train muscles WITHOUT MOVING. As a therapist and trainer, my focus is on preventing injuries regardless of what your goals are. It also should be noted that HOW you move will dictate what muscles are recruited. Imagine all the tension you want in your quads but a front squat will recruit more quadricep muscle than a low-bar back squat. So learning how to move properly will set you up for building more muscle!
So is there a place in the non-bodybuilding population for isolated muscle building? Absolutely! Often people who don’t move well have muscular imbalances. When rehabbing my knee, my physical therapist told me that I had a weak glute medius particularly on the right side. I had to do a lot of isolated training to strengthen that up to bring it up to speed with my quads. In professional therapy experience, when someone gets a total knee replacement the first thing we teach them is “quad setting” which is learning to contract the quads without movement at the knee joint.
So when it comes to evaluating your goals and approach to training, should you train muscles or movements? My answer is BOTH! Obviously your end result will tend to push you to one more than the other (think about bodybuilding vs powerlifting). However, if you want to optimize your results, you need to think about how you move as well as the muscles that you are working!