Backwards Machines

To better understand the real objective of exercise and get into the proper mindset for high intensity training I’ve found it helps to think of barbells, dumbbells, or exercise machines as “backwards machines”. The purpose of most machines is to make some task easier, like lifting a heavy object, or moving some object more quickly or over a greater distance. The purpose of a barbell, dumbbell, or exercise machine is the exact opposite; to make it harder for you to perform various exercise movements to place a demand on the muscles targeted.

The body movement is the exercise, not making the barbell or dumbbells or the weight stack on a machine go up and down. The whole point of using the weights or machine is to make the specific body movement you are performing harder to get at the muscles you are targeting. If you focus on moving the weight you will tend to alter your body movement to make it easier to do that, which might look more impressive to other people in the gym who don’t know better but makes the exercise less effective. If you focus on your body movement instead and think of the barbell, dumbbell or machine as a “backwards machine” for making your muscles work harder you will make the exercise far more effective.

RenEx Leg Press

For example, the RenEx Leg Press pictured here wasn’t designed to allow you to easily make a weight stack go up and down. It was designed to resist hip and knee extension to efficiently load the involved muscles. To focus on making the weights go up and down or to use the machine in a manner that makes it easier rather than harder to do so completely misses the point.

In the same way, cheating during a barbell or dumbbell exercise by altering your body position or offloading the weight onto other muscles misses the point of using the weight to begin with. The purpose of using a weight is to increase the resistance against the target muscles during an exercise. If you’re moving the barbell or dumbbells in a way that makes them easier to lift instead of harder you’re doing the exercise wrong.

Similarly, the skill of performing an exercise can be thought of as a “backwards skill” because the better you are at performing an exercise the harder it is to do.

Don’t confuse being better at an exercise with being stronger. They are completely different things. Being stronger means your muscles are capable of producing more force. Being better at an exercise means you are able to more effectively and efficiently load the targeted muscles. The better you get at doing this, the harder the exercise will be with a particular amount of weight.

It is also important to distinguish between being better at exercise and lifting weights. The goal of exercise is to stimulate increases in muscular strength and all the supporting factors of functional ability. The goal of a competitive lift in powerlifting, weight lifting, and other strength competitions is to lift as much weight as possible. The first is about making the weight harder to lift (increasing the resistance the weight provides), the second about making it easier (reducing the resistance). Unless you are a competitive lifter training to improve your skill in a competitive lift you should always use a barbell, dumbbells, or machine in a way that makes the movement as hard as possible.

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31 Responses to Backwards Machines

  1. Donnie Hunt December 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    The weight/resistance in conjunction with slow contolled movement is there to help the trainee not contract with too much force and help the trainee maintain continuous tension in the muscles?

    Some recent online articles and comments made me think about what you are talking about in this latest article, Drew. I didn’t understand why some trainers are not in favor of using motorized machines. Motorized machines could cause the trainee to go in the wrong direction like you discuss in this latest article?

    It’s almost like one could successfully perform dynamic contractions with no external resistance if you had a way to monitor the force output? This is what the weight does on a properly designed machine?

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Donnie,

      The goal is to keep the muscles under a consistent level of tension that is high enough to achieve momentary muscular failure within a reasonable time frame without exceeding a level of force that is safe for all the tissues involved. A properly designed machine provides resistance to a specific body movement balanced to the strength of the involved muscles to accomplish this.

      One of the problems with some motorized machines (mainly the motor/weight stack hybrids) is they make it difficult or impossible to do this for various reasons. I have to head to the studio to train someone now, but will try to get to this later.

  2. Niles Wheeler December 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    I have been telling clients for over thirty nine years that building muscle is not about lifting weight, It’s about contracting muscle against resistance. When possible, throughout a full range of motion. Done properly it not only requires less weight it is impossible to use very much. Concentrating on muscle contraction instead of lifting a weight. I’ll never forget the last time I saw Casey Viator. His parting words were, “Remember contraction, contraction” I never forgot. Old school advice from a young old man….May God bless

  3. Joe Karszen December 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Another excellent article!

  4. Matt Spriggs December 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    Drew,

    This is very thought provoking. Recently, I switched from Nautilus 2st Bench Press to push ups. I was capable of doing 50 plus push ups, but now that I use 10/10 I’m challenged to reach 6 repetitions. This article really helps put things into perspective. Do I desire bragging rights to a certain amount of reps and weight OR do I seek physical improvements? Lastly, I tried the hip belt squats and I must tell you – it’s pretty challenging just pausing in the bottom position of a bodyweight squat for 90 – 120 seconds – same for a push up. The applications for isometrics, TSC seem almost limitless. Thanks for the great information!

    Matt

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      Matt,

      You’re welcome. Since writing about the TSC hip belt squat platform I’ve had a lot of people make similar comments and while it’s not nearly as nice as having a RenEx Leg Press like the one pictured here it gets the job done pretty well.

  5. Rich December 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    Awesome! Exactly the point. One of my biggest “issues” with Crossfit is how all the goals are extrinsic and not intrinsic. They even pride themselves on doing the movements in such a way that they make the exercises easier so they can do more reps. What is the point of that anyway?

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

      Rich,

      The CrossFit methodology confuses high mechanical work and power output with effective exercise which is about efficient muscular loading and high metabolic work.

  6. Brian Liebler December 31, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Drew,
    Great post with an excellant explanation!
    Years ago,when I tested my 1 rep max for fiber testing my rep range with 2/4 cadence was rather(low 6-7 reps, TUL 48 to 56 seconds.) That rep range never really worked well for me and I always lowered the weight for 8-10 reps and got much better results.
    I now realize that by lowering the weight I was able to focus one what really mattered.
    A few months ago I realized that I was offloading in the 1st rep of the leg press. I decreased the weight and I explain it as just sqeeze the weight up with every rep. My TUL is the same as before but now I can hardly walk over to the pulldown machine.

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

      Brian,

      If you can barely walk after the leg press you’re doing it right. Focusing on the muscles instead of moving the weight makes a big difference.

  7. Joe A December 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Drew,

    I appreciate your analogy, but the only way you can view these exercise apparatuses as ‘backwards’ is to first view the ‘task’ as the performance of the exercise movement. If, conversely, the ‘task’ is properly viewed as fatiguing one’s self, then these tools serve only to make the carrying out of that task more efficient, easier (i.e. we add load not to make the movement harder, per se, but to make fatiguing easier). AND, more importantly, if a tool does not serve that purpose, then there is no need for it…just as there is no need for behavior that does not serve this purpose.

    We should seek to eliminate everything that is not a pure expression of efficient, safe fatiguing one’s musculature…including mindsets. I fear that this analogy perpetuates the underlying problem while simultaneously providing a band aid fix. Drive home the definition and real objective and they provide context for all the tools, techniques and behaviors that lead to exercise expression. Therein lies the simplicity of the activity.

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      Joe,

      The purpose of the “backwards machine” analogy is to help people understand the proper mindset for performing the exercise movement correctly, which is the means goal. It should be understood that the end goal of this is efficient muscular loading and effective stimulus for muscular strength increases and related improvements in functional ability.

      Mindset can’t be eliminated. If you are conscious, you have a mindset. The ideal is to have a mindset conducive to accomplishing the real objective of exercise. I have found this to be helpful in getting some clients there who otherwise tend to focus too much on moving the weight.

  8. Trace December 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    I like what you said: “The purpose of a barbell…or exercise machine is…to make it harder to perform exercise movements to place a demand on the muscles targeted.” This is the opposite of what machines are usually designed to do. So we can think of them (these barbells and movement arms) as devices which serve only to intensify our effort. In this sense they are a technology with a reversed purpose to what is normally expected. “Backwards” is not bad at all. Thanks!

  9. Josh December 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    I want to create a simple home gym that gives me the basic high intensity (super-slow) workout elements:

    1.) Pull down
    2.) Push up
    3.) Lateral pull / compound row
    4.) Leg press
    5.) Leg Flexure (lift, curl, etc.)

    Don’t want to spend a lot of cash, and would ideally like to buy one basic “multi-gym” that gives me all the above.

    Suggestions?

    • Drew Baye February 15, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

      Josh,

      Bodyweight versions of all of these and more can be done on the UXS (chin up, push up, row, squat, knee flexion, etc.).

  10. Mike December 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    I want to thank you for all the great advice you are sharing and I wish you and your loved ones the best of luck and health in the new year!

    • Drew Baye December 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

      Thanks Mike,

      The same to you and everyone else visiting the site!

  11. Trygve January 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Had my second workout applying the HIIT principle.

    My biggest struggle when i perform the exersices is my breath/cardio. Like i get so exhausted in terms of breathing that i feel like its the cardio almost that breaks down before the muscles or maybe its just the cardio that almost kills meø

    Esp leg presses is just so demanding in terms of breathing and all. I also tend to hold my breath when i push the weights to get the weights moving better.

    Any tips?

    • Drew Baye January 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

      Trygve,

      As your conditioning improves this becomes less of a limiting factor. As long as you’re not feeling nauseated or too light headed try to move as quickly as you can between exercises.

      If you feel like you’re going to hold your breath try to breathe more. Read Safety Considerations for Exercise for more on proper breathing.

  12. Trygve January 2, 2013 at 4:14 am #

    What do you think is the best exersice to do for hamstring and glutes?

    I know sumo deadlifts and squats are good but im not feeling it 100% in my hastrings and glutes. I really need a exersice that destroy them when i do this method of training since those to muscles are so important for me :)

    • Drew Baye January 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

      Trygve,

      The best free weight exercise for hamstrings and glutes are stiff-leg deadlifts and back or hip belt squats. The best machine exercises are trunk extensions, leg presses, and leg curls.

      I suggest either stiff-leg deadlifts or trunk extensions immediately followed by leg press.

  13. Steven Turner January 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Whilst Joe A makes many good points I can appreciate your anaolgy “backwards machine” in an attempt to try and educate the general population of the real objective of exercise. Current lifting practices by many trainees is to move the weight without conscious thought.

    I think that many of the current lifting practices are due to the “functional movement” mantra train movement not muscles. This tell me that functional movement” do not understand the real objective of exercise.

    Could you also include body weight as a “machine”, functional movement say you only need to train “bodyweight” But I think that many of them don’t understand bodyweight leverage principles or leverage principles in general when it comes exercising.

    Could we than say “that you are doing exercise wrong”

    • Drew Baye January 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

      Steven,

      The analogy works best when talking about a machine or free weights but the principle is the same when training with body weight. As a general rule you should try to make the exercise as hard as possible for the target muscles, not easier. If you are moving in a way that makes the weight or your body easier to move rather than harder you are doing the exercise wrong.

      The exception with bodyweight exercise is when you are scaling down the difficulty of a movement to accommodate someone with less strength. When training with free weights and machines you can change the resistance by changing the weight but with bodyweight you have to change the levers.

  14. joel January 3, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    great article! this one really made me get what training is about, thank you for the insight. for years i focussed on training to lift more reps and more weight rather than what is actually happening to my muscles. I’m really getting this “make the exercise harder” approach. I did some curls with 5kg dumbbells, really focussing on a slow squeezed contraction and I managed to make a light weight feel heavy. Today I did push ups, chin ups, and deep squats trying to make the exercise harder rather than easier… it was a great workout! thanks for your insights. Wish you had written this years ago

    • Drew Baye January 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

      Joel,

      Thanks, glad it helped your workouts.

  15. Karl January 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Ive done 3 full body sessions doing your type of workout. Ive done strength training for many years but i havent trained my legs so much unntil the last year because ive always have had big legs because of my soccer career.
    Anyway after these 3 sessions from doing this type of training my legs feel so sore and heavy and slow. I trained soccer today and i just felt super weak and heavy. My upperbody feels fine maybe because that is used to more training and esp that type of training with more Time under Load.

    How long does it usually take before i will notice i get stronger and faster when i run etc?

    • Drew Baye January 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

      Karl,

      You should start feeling much less soreness after a few weeks after which you should notice improvement, provided you’re giving your legs enough recovery time between workouts.

  16. Steven Turner January 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks for the explanation I greatly appreciate it.

  17. marklloyd January 6, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Our bodies must also be treated as “backwards machines” to exercise safely & efficiently, purposely putting ourselves in leverage-disadvantaged positions with minimized inertia, when we could easily “get the job done” with a straighter limb and a little shove past the sticking point.

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