Workout at Jim Flanagan’s Gym

Jim Keen using the Nautilus Compound Triceps machine at Jim Flanagan's home gymI’m about to leave for a weekend at the beach for our fifth wedding anniversary, so I’m going to keep this brief.  There are just a few comments I want to make while they’re on my mind.

Someone recently asked about a “sports specific” workout. A good workout for an athlete is one that safely and effectively works all the major muscle groups in the body, with the highest priority increasing the athlete’s resistance to injury during practice and competition. This does not mean doing a bunch of plyometrics and Olympic lifts and so-called “functional” exercises that mimic the skills of the sport while using weights or weighted implements. What it does mean is performing exercises for all the major muscle groups based on muscle and joint function, not sport movements, in a manner that strengthens without being unnecessarily hard on the joints. Additionally, it means performing exercises specifically to strengthen the areas of the body most often injured to minimize the chance or severity of injury to those areas. Direct neck work for athletes in contact sports, knee extension and flexion for runners, etc.

While we’re on the topic of knee flexion, properly designed seated leg curl machines (with a coupled movement arm) are better than prone leg curl machines for several reasons. Earlier leg curl machine designs used a prone body position because they were based on the designs of leg extension and leg curl attachments developed for flat benches. The seated position for later knee extension machines was obvious since this was the position they were performed in on the bench, but rather than design knee flexion machines based on joint function, earlier machines just copied the exercise as performed with the equipment already available.

A prone leg curl is superior to an improperly designed seated leg curl machine, however (just about every leg curl machine other than Nautilus, MedX, and SuperSlow Systems). The worst seated leg curl designs incorporate a pad which presses down on the top of the thighs, often with handles for the user to hold to brace against being pulled forwards. This is a very poor method of countering the changing reactionary force over the range of the exercise, and these designs typically have a seat bottom which extends all the way to the back of the knees rather than ending just a little past the ischial tuberosities of the pelvis (the “sit” bones), which means not only are you sitting on the muscles you are attempting to contract, but you also have a restraining pad pushing the thighs down into the seat.

On a prone leg curl machine the weight of the thighs is on the quadriceps, not the hamstrings which you are trying to contract, which is a big improvement.

A properly designed seated leg curl also has the advantage of easier entry and exit and with the coupled movement arm reactionary force is countered without the need for the user to pull (prone designs) or push (seated designs with thigh pads and handles) with the arms to maintain proper positioning and alignment. It is also easier for people to learn the exercise when the movement is occurring in front of them (Ken Hutchins’ heirarchy of motor learning difficulty).

The optimal seat design for the leg curl is very different than what is optimal for a leg extension, which is also a big problem for companies which make “combo” machines providing both functions. The Exerbotics leg curl is a great example of how not to design a leg curl machine:

1. A thigh restraint with handles is a very poor solution for countering reactionary force and maintaining proper positioning and alignment during seated leg curls. The Exerbotics machine uses a thigh restraint with handles instead of a coupled movement arm (which can be designed to work in both flexion and extension with a simple position change).

2. The seat bottom should only extend far enough to provide support for the pelvis so the user is not sitting on the hamstrings while trying to contract them. The thigh restraint pressing down on the thighs makes this even worse. The Exerbotics seat bottom extends too far.

3. A seat belt is required for optimal countering of reactionary force during leg extensions while minimizing tension in the neck and shoulders from pulling up on the handles, and also a better solution for countering forwards reactionary force along with a coupled movement arm during seated leg curls. The Exerbotics machine has no seat belt.

Exerbotics leg extension / seated leg curl is a great example of how NOT to design a seated leg curl machine

Although the point isn’t to bash Exerbotics specifically, since most equipment companies get this stuff wrong, I should point out in addition to the problems related to using motorized resistance the rest of Exerbotic’s machine designs contain numerous flaws.

On a related topic, one of the other considerations of machine design is avoiding positions of active or passive muscular insufficiency – something Arthur Jones was actually trying to do in the design of the early Nautilus compound biceps and triceps machines. Although I much prefer triceps extensions and arm curl machine designs which position the upper arms at around 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, those machines certainly produce an intense sensation when used correctly. Jim Flanagan put me through a set on the Nautilus compound triceps and biceps machines (pictured above, with Jim Keen in the compound triceps machine, and the compound biceps machine to his right) and shortly afterwards I did a set of weighted dips and weighted chin ups and the effect was impressive. The pump was almost uncomfortable and my arms still feel “heavy” almost 24 hours after the workout.

Have to head out to the beach so that’s all for now, but there’ll be more on this later.

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16 Responses to Workout at Jim Flanagan’s Gym

  1. Mike June 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Drew – if you have a chance to do a post on leg press design, or discuss it in your coming book, that would be awesome. i generally have to pick from what may be substandard designs, since i workout at city rec centers rather than HIT facilities. i have therefore defaulted to using a plate loaded leg press, rather than the ‘lifefitness’ and other brand leg presses that appear rickety and inferior. it would be great to know which of these less-than-optimal designs are safest, etc.

    • Drew Baye June 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

      Mike,

      Will do. Sadly, most equipment companies’ machines today still don’t even come close to the Nautilus machines Arthur Jones designed four decades ago.

  2. Thomas June 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    Drew-would you recommend any free weight or non machine hamstring exercises that are better than the seated leg curl as designed above (it’s similar to mine)? Although I really appreciate knowing and understanding design flaws, I’m not in a position to change to a different machine at this point. Any suggestions?

    • Drew Baye June 24, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

      Thomas,

      Anything involving hip extension against resistance will work the hamstrings (deadlifts, hip raises, etc.), however the short head of the biceps femoris is only worked during knee flexion since it does not cross the hip joint.

  3. Eric Lepine June 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    I often hear you refer to Nautilus 1st and 2nd generation machines being your favourite. Would this be the case with leg curl machines as well Drew?

    • Drew Baye June 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

      Eric,

      The first and second gen leg curls were prone designs. I think the first seated leg curl Nautilus made was in the Next Gen line. While the seated design with a coupled movement arm is better than the prone, overall the Next Gen line was not as good as the earlier ones.

  4. Casey June 23, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    First off, congrats on the 5yr anniversary!

    I’ve recently discovered your site, stopped doing huge volume set training, and committed to a HIT routine (sprinkled with a bit of “do only as much as needed – not all you can” from the Olympic sprinting team strength program) and as a result have been able to break through strength plateaus that I NEVER have in the last 10yrs. The added benefits of less time in the gym while still putting on size have given me a fantastic amount of balance that I needed back in my life, while still achieving fitness goals. Bottom line: THANKS for all the great info.

    My question is a bit off-topic, but fits with the beginning thoughts on “sports specific” workouts… I enjoy a single yoga session per week for benefits outside of what are measured as strength-based results. My question is: What kind of rest period should I be cognizant of between these yoga sessions and my HIT sessions (i.e. what should my on/off days look like), in order to maintain the best possible results from my HIT program?

    • Drew Baye June 24, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

      Thanks Casey,

      Everybody’s recovery ability is different so depending on the type, intensity and duration of the yoga sessions it may have little effect on recovery or a lot. If it’s not very demanding I wouldn’t worry too much about the effect on recovery but if it is give yourself a day of rest between the session and your workout and add more if it negatively affects your workout performance.

  5. Vanner June 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    I hope the weather stays nice for you at the beach.

    Based on this article, I’m getting the idea that a knee flexion exercise should be included in a workout for the biceps femoris. Currently I only do stiff (slight bend) leg deadlifts for my hamstrings, and I’m not a runner.

    Do you think I should add in a knee flexion exercise so my biceps femoris gets some work? Or will squats and deads cover it enough.

    • Drew Baye June 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

      Vanner,

      Only the short head of the biceps femoris doesn’t cross the hip joint. Ideally, knee flexion should be performed occasionally along with isolated, full range knee extension, since the vastus medialis appears to only be involved during the last fifteen to twenty degrees of extension. Compound leg exercises will hit almost all the hip and thigh muscles, but simple movements are required to effectively work certain muscles.

  6. Vanner June 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Thanks for the response Drew. Do you add supplemental knee flexion and extension exercises to your own workouts? I don’t think I’ve seen you post that before.

    With my basic barbell & rack home setup, the only types of isolated’ish exercises I can think of for the short head of the biceps femoris and vastus medialis would be glute-ham raises on the floor and sissy squats. However, I’m a little apprehensive about putting that much stress on my knees.

    • Drew Baye June 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

      Vanner,

      I perform leg extensions and leg curls occasionally during my workouts. I usually pair leg curls with a more thigh dominant compound exercise like the leg press or squats, and leg extensions with a more glute and hamstring dominant compound exercise like deadlifts.

      If you don’t have access to a proper leg extension or leg curl machine it is possible to perform static contractions for both movements using a power rack and bench, using the safety bar with a pad on it to contract against.

  7. Vanner June 27, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    Thanks again Drew, I forgot about the static contraction protocol. I’ll give it a try.

  8. Ryan Smithson June 27, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    Very informative article Drew.

  9. Steven.turner June 28, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Great post I often hear people say that leg curls and leg extension exercises are bad for you – I often tell them it is more the type of equipments that is bad.

    I find that most people have no idea about the design flaws in machine and many of these people are the so-called experts of the fitness industry. I have read a lot of articles of the trial and errors processess of Nautilus machines to get them as perfect as possible. Arthur often mentioned that if he could get the machine exactly right then he would produce them. Arthur often mention “function dictates design”.

    Now back to the “so-called fitness experts” who think that leg curls and leg extensions are bad exercises – in some of our major sports we currently have the highest rate of hamstring tears in the last 20-30 years. I won’t tell them why this occurring but it has been known for many many years – “being aware is a start”.

    • Drew Baye June 28, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

      Hey Steven,

      I’m going to be interviewing an engineer who worked for MedX and now works for Keiser about the equipment design process. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to know post your questions and I’ll try to work them into the interview.

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