Lauren Downes MSPT
Functional Training vs. Weight Machines for Gymnasts: Which is better?
Back in the ‘old days’ of training, almost every athlete could be found in the gym using weight machines to build strength and muscle mass, no matter which sport he or she played. They used the traditional leg press, leg curl, and leg extension machines to bulk up their thighs, and the calf press for their lower legs. There is no question that these machines increase muscle mass and make these athletes stronger, but how did this type of training carry over to their sports? Unless the athlete was a power lifter, it didn’t!
Most weight machines isolate one muscle or muscle group at a time, by following the action that muscle controls. Repetitive contraction against resistance will strengthen a muscle’s fibers and make it bigger and more defined. If a person wants to tone or target a certain area of the body, using a weight machine can accomplish that goal, but it will not maximize training benefits for an athlete. In the majority of sports, using gymnastics as an example, athletes are constantly required to recruit power and speed from several muscle groups at once. Gymnasts’ muscles need the ability to accelerate and decelerate with significant force and strength to complete tumbling passes, change speeds and directions, and stick a landing. A single muscle cannot accomplish this on its’ own; synergistic contractions of muscles are needed to create such forces. The most beneficial way to train muscles to co-contract is through functional training.
The official definition of functional training is ‘the classification of exercises which involves training the body for the activities performed in everyday life.’ These exercises use the body’s weight as resistance, with one of more extremities planted on the ground or stable surface. Examples include lunges, single leg dead lifts, hip strengthening while standing on one leg, bridging, and one-legged squats. Such exercises mimic actions that we perform every day, whether it be reaching to pick a pencil off of the floor or loading a dishwasher. Humans are constantly balancing their body while bending over or on one foot; we are exercising when we don’t even realize it!
Gymnasts are perpetually in motion, bending the knees, hips, and ankles. Ninety percent of the actions gymnasts perform require a certain degree of core stability, balance, and strength, using several muscle groups at once. With many functional based exercises, the body is forced to use the core, balance receptors, and lower extremity muscles together to complete a motion. Performing functional exercises, a gymnast can accomplish much more in a shorter time frame than using a weight machine, by condensing the strengthening of several areas into one exercise.
Besides saving time, functional training can be safer than using weight machines for exercises. Most of our bodies are not entirely symmetrical, referring to joint movements, muscle flexibility, and muscle strength. Many machines are moved by both the upper extremities or lower extremities simultaneously, requiring symmetrical movement of the joints and muscles. By using asymmetrical movement, there is a greater chance for injury or increase in joint dysfunction. Machines also should be adjusted properly according to one’s height, and injury can occur if the machine is not set up properly. In an exercise such as a lunge, the body follows its natural path of movement, instead of being controlled by the movement of a machine. The body activates muscle memory in regards to the positioning and control of a joint, which can carry over to functional movement in our everyday life.
Using weight machines can be helpful to a gymnast, by increasing muscle mass and strength, yet functional training will prove to be more beneficial for balance and stability. Gymnastics is one of the most technical and demanding sports on the body, and gymnasts need the best strength and conditioning training available to them to accomplish their goals. Functional training is the answer!