Exercise Machines and Isolation Exercises

When bad ideas have been gone for a long enough time, they often resurface. 

Here’s one: “Exercise machines and isolated muscle training don’t allow for natural movement patterns… they often cause more problems. Exercises that allow your body to work together as a whole are key to optimizing your movement efficiency.”

The Bottom Line:

100% wrong. Both machines and isolated training provide a unique, essential stimulus/opportunity, that nothing else can. This doesn’t mean that non-machine and non-isolating isolated exercises are inherently bad. It simply means that they cannot offer some benefits that machines provide.

The Details:

  1.  What makes a movement natural or unnatural? This is, at best, an arbitrary distinction and at worst a distinction based on a purely biased perspective. There is no logic/physics evidence that can distinguish “natural” from “unnatural”. Furthermore, the statement presupposes that “natural” is better or good for you. There are countless examples of how natural things are dangerous and harmful. It is not the case that the “natural-ness” of something is what makes it good. 
  2. What is a movement pattern? You’re likely to get a variety of answers depending on who you ask. People often call the gross, large movements they see a person perform, movement patterns. What makes it a pattern? Does it need to be repeated a certain number of times to be considered a pattern? How can it deviate before it is no longer considered a pattern and/or it is considered a new pattern? If it is not repeated in a certain amount of time is it still considered a pattern? Here is a fact that muddies the idea of movement patterns – even when a gross, observable movement is repeated, the sequence of muscle fibers recruited changes. This happens down to the m-line of the sarcomere!
  3.  “Exercises that allow your body to work together as a whole”: First off, we need to define “as a whole”. How much of the body working constitutes “a whole”? This one goes off the rails quickly. Again, this is an arbitrary distinction. Is “a whole” all of it? If so we have a problem because choosing an exercise that emphasizes your biceps won’t do a lot for your triceps. Does “a whole” mean “a lot”, or some percentage of certain parts? This just doesn’t hold water. And all this doesn’t even address the part about exercises that allow your body to work together as a whole “are key to optimizing your movement efficiency”.
  4. “Optimizing your movement efficiency”. We need a clear definition of movement efficiency. Much of movement efficiency is taken care of by your nervous system. We see this in movements like walking and running. Unless a disease or damage has occurred, people move in ways that are most advantageous to conserving energy. When movements get more complicated/require more skill (think Olympic lifts or the hurdle) then teaching and learning are required to develop the new skill. Improving strength, endurance, power, and balance/coordination can aid that skill development. Opting for “Exercises that allow your body to work together as a whole” won’t. 
  5. “Isolated” exercises”. This concept is rarely understood and often misused. NOTHING is ever isolated. Let’s start there. There is almost always more than 1 muscle crossing a joint. Even if only one joint were being exercised, there is already more than 1 muscle being worked. Add to that often when a single joint is being worked, other muscles need to work to disallow motion at joints that the exerciser does not want to move (meaning those muscles are working too). You’ll find that it is essentially impossibly difficult to create an arrangement where only 1 joint is being challenged resulting in 1 muscle being worked. But then again… when people speak about “isolation”, they are often quite unclear as to what is meant. Do 5 muscles constitute “isolated”? How about 3 muscles and 2 joints???
  6. How do “exercise machines and isolated muscle training” cause more problems? This is a statement that simply supports a narrative that those things are bad. By recognizing that machines and “isolated” muscle training are valuable and necessary, it obvious that there is nothing inherent about them that can cause more problems. I would argue the opposite. Eliminating the use of exercise machines and isolated muscle training will also eliminate specific adaptations that are of the highest value in terms of health, disease prevention, and performance.

The benefits from using both machines and “isolating” type exercises are profoundly healthy. Use both.  



Jason M Weitzner, MS

Certified Medical Exercise Specialist,

Certified Muscle System Specialist

Co-Owner of Symmetry Exercise Clinic in Naples, FL

1750 J&C Blvd. Suite #10, Naples, FL 34109