By Carl Valle

The word “machine” is a very sensitive subject for many professionals. Some find the use of any type of machine to be non-functional, while others only work with machines. In sports performance and sports medicine, machines are now accepted as part of the solution, but the spectrum of opinions is wide.

Today, we are no longer talking about simple machines—those that have gears or levers—but more sophisticated instruments. Athletes will continue to work with barbells, dumbbells, and medicine balls, but the use of specialized machines is going to grow. In this article, I take a critical and open view of what is available now and discuss key points to consider before buying. It’s not a list of equipment with foundational information like a Buyer’s Guide; it’s more of a reflection of what needs to be said today.

What Is a Resistance Machine Really?

“Machine” has a wide definition, as you could consider something as simple as a landmine press a machine. As soon as you leverage physics outside the human body, a barbell becomes something more, and that’s why high-tech solutions become difficult to differentiate. To me, a resistance machine is any device that uses an engineering strategy to provide a novel change outside of free weights.I believe that certain equipment is essential to deliver the best training stimulus possible. CLICK TO TWEET

I love conventional barbells and anything that is classic, but I believe that certain equipment is essential to deliver the best training stimulus possible. In the past, I used machines 95% of the time, now I am closer to 80%, thanks to the availability of flywheels and pneumatic options. One warning though: That number just quoted could be way off, as I don’t count any barbell tracking hardware as a machine, even if it has electronics. Does a sensor turn a barbell into an intelligent training device just because it spits out a number?

Adding the term “smart” to any conventional piece of equipment is fair, because it takes a lot of development to transform a simple piece of equipment into an intelligent device. For example, the Ballistic Ball is a resistance training tool because it actually loads the body and a GPS product is a tracking device because it helps measure training. A cable machine, while it appears primitive at first, is often very sophisticated because of subtle design choices that we don’t appreciate.

We can’t forget that having a great mechanical solution is the starting point, and those that do maintenance on their equipment know what I mean. Adding technology to a poorly designed and manufactured machine is not helpful, but it’s very satisfying. Advanced technology is important, but quality coaching will always be superior, mainly because strength training supports movement training. A good teacher is always more valuable than a good trainer. Even if you are not a fan of weightlifting, the results are fairly obvious that it isn’t obsolete to go old school with a coach.

Resistance machines today increasingly don’t display outputs. If they are just “zombie” style strength training equipment—meaning they have no electronics to create or calculate forces—appreciate their quality design but know that they’re not high-tech. You can always add or customize machines later with instrumentation to measure the devices or “robotic resistance” as well. Always start with good design without the technology, as a machine will be used and must be durable and user-friendly, especially in groups. It’s also important to be aware of the responsibility of replacement parts and maintenance, as investing in good machines means you will have to keep them running year after year.

The Background of Strength Equipment

Early “exercise machines” were originally constructed for the purposes of either war or to feed large societies, so technically the equipment was about using an individual’s force for productivity. Today, machines are to challenge athletes with overload, not help them topple an enemy’s castle or help with grain production. It’s important—in fact, vital—that we know the ancient history because designs today still replicate the thinking of yesterday.

I mentioned how flywheels were likely invented for pottery, not for helping athletes improve leg strength. Hundreds of years ago, the systems, which were mainly made of wood and metal, were more similar to farming tools than training tools. Still, much of what we have designed today has hints of the past, with some equipment nearly identical to earlier designs.

After the turn of the 19th century, Joseph Pilates and others created machines to help with rehabilitation and wellness, before we entered an innovation dark age until the 1960s and 1970s. Then Nautilus and Keiser came along, and it was mainly stagnation for 30 years until Hammer Strength gained popularity in the late 1990s. Traditional rack companies like Sampson and Power Lift stayed true to their core values, and then EliteFTS and now Rogue became part of the action. It seems we have gone full circle, from Arthur Saxon to Bert Sorin, and that is a good thing.

Smart Resistance
Image 1. Inspired by Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, I placed companies in their respective area based on what I know about each company’s history and products. Coaches and sports medicine professionals should invest based on what they need, not what others are doing.

The history of machines in training is important, because not much has changed in over 100 years. That is both good and bad for the market. The body has not changed, so I like the idea that pull-ups don’t need much tinkering. The issue is that fitness and performance are not perfectly aligned sometimes, so companies have to look at selling a few million dollars’ worth of butt blasters to health clubs or to appease a few strength coaches. Medical and scientific devices, such as the Biodex and other solutions, are still being used, but their market share is dwindling. New methods of rehabilitation resemble old methods of sports training, so medical professionals are gravitating to training devices with data outputs rather than stationary single joint machines.

Today, data is the buzzword that still keeps going. A modern piece of equipment now needs to have some sort of number output, even if it’s just a labeled weight plate. The ability to display and record data is important, but the meaningfulness of information is far superior. Who honestly cares if the data is better if the exercise performed has very little transfer or success with outcomes? Sometimes, equipment today is amazing in its design and function as a machine, but it’s not helpful if the exercises are not effective. I see this in some equipment I would rather not mention, with the device’s “wow” factor better than its results.Equipment may have amazing design & function, but it’s not valuable if its exercises aren’t useful. CLICK TO TWEET

My experience tells me that we will see more and more coaches continue to fight management on what works, since many sport scientists are poached by companies looking to override the wisdom of those actually in the trenches. This is why I urge coaches to network with good sport scientists and medical researchers, but keep in mind that you don’t know who is financially connected to who. Resistance machines are big business, especially with rehabilitation populations, so be cautious.

Modern Advancements of Training Equipment

Steel tubing and welding are not going away soon, but the industry of designing and building strength training machines has matured over the last decade. There’s better 3D rendering of systems and improved laser cutting, and even the way equipment is painted has evolved. It’s safe to say that, while the core fundamentals are the same, the refinement on how it’s built is changing.

Today, nearly every major college rack has a tablet to show workouts or help with velocity-based training, but expect more technological leaps forward in the next few years. Accentuated eccentric overload and other resistance methods are growing in popularity, and companies are listening to the needs of coaches. In the next decade, there will be more combination machines—providing conventional resistance and an extra boost from motorized options.

Instrumentation is the new normal at high-performance centers, especially force analysis and barbell tracking. While, technically, a video camera with a flat screen is a leading option, the real shift after that investment is making sure kinetic, not kinematic, output is recorded and displayed. Modern weight rooms demand athletes know the forces they are expressing, and coaches want key exercises tracked over the course of a season. Load cells, force plates, linear encoders, and even markerless motion capture is the rage now. You would think the technology would change the game, but so far, the ability to exploit the data isn’t keeping up with the need to educate the coaches and sports medicine professionals.The ability to exploit the data isn’t keeping up with the need to educate coaches. CLICK TO TWEET

The slowest to evolve is motorized resistance, as it looks like most advanced systems today are single-vector cables with servo-mechanisms or pneumatic engines. Keiser is leading here, with other companies following suit. A new generation of machines will likely enter the market­—my guess is right after the summer Olympics, as plenty of companies are in stealth mode because of national team projects. In the last few months alone, advancements in instantaneous feedback at insanely high sampling rates have been changing the game. Isokinetic machines have always been fast, mainly because they have the responsibility of meeting the resistance and velocities of all-out efforts.

New and old styles of resistance, from flywheels to servo-motors, are able to detect changes in muscle force to accommodate overload. This is why I prefer the term “biokinetic” over robotic resistance, as it’s more about the interaction of the human than the machine’s hardware that creates the resistance. Expect higher forces, faster sampling, and more intelligent analysis of movement down the road. The flywheel market is growing, with old companies making a comeback due to the innovation in training and their ability to properly market their equipment.

What Does the Science Say About Biokinetic Devices?

Speaking of science, what does the research say about conventional machines and those that use motorized resistance? Unstable surface research has shown us that the stabilization benefits of balance work were grossly inflated, and gross strength is more likely to be valuable. Does this mean we should drop the power clean and start adding more leg pressing? No, but we can’t lump all machines together and say they’re a waste of time either. A fair and honest approach is to use a mix of methods instead of putting all your eggs into one basket.

There are three arguments with machines versus free weights, and they start with the value of strength training overall. Generally speaking, it’s better to have a strength training program than not, but even specific training with overload is not as effective as we thought it was. New research on the resisted sled sprints was eye-opening, as pro athletes didn’t seem to respond. It’s not that I don’t believe strength training helps, it’s just that strength training is supportive and isolating biomotor abilities is always a little murky. Strength training mainly helps with mass, power, and sometimes injury resilience. I don’t think maximum speed is modified that much by strength, but I think strength supports speed, and sprinting helps the process continue.

So, if debating about machines versus free weights is a little crazy when strength training is limited, why fight over the details? Of course, comparing machines with different resistance types is even more questionable. Coaches should not worry that they are barking up the wrong tree; they should just think about giving the athlete the right program with the best options.

Video 1. Ryan Steenberg is a Long Drive competitor who produces unholy amounts of power from his swing. Modern systems are able to quantify and produce various resistances in their respective devices.

Does it matter if a program uses isokinetic squats with a Smith machine? Not likely that much, but the small details do matter over years. If a machine helps with a bodyweight exercise, such as a razor curl (using a glute-ham raise bench), that is an accessory. Without equating for regular movement demands and simple machines, evaluating advanced motorized resistance is tough. For example, what are the training effects of a flywheel leg machine versus an isokinetic leg extension? Then, what are the benefits of an isokinetic squat versus a flywheel squat, machine squat, and barbell squat? You need to compare both the simpler machines and the motorized options to fully see the value of the resistance type.Compare the simpler machines and the motorized options to fully see the resistance type’s value. CLICK TO TWEET

A recent study on ice hockey is perhaps the best example of the differences between machines and isokinetic machines. Both systems provide a movement, but the resistance type separates a conventional machine from a modern, motorized resistance machine. The study included multiple resistances and demonstrated a clear advantage over the traditional options. We will need more research to see how a small period of time relates to careers or multiple years.

Human Kinematic
Image 3. Human Kinematic is a new player in the rehabilitation and performance training market. Their hamstring machine leverages the power of research and combines it with high-quality instrumentation to ensure data and training match the needs of the user.

Short investigations between special resistance methods and gravitational options will always be controversial. The main issue is the details of the study, especially the comparisons between exercises like the power clean and machine movements. It’s fair to ask what the technique looked like and what actual loads were used, not just percentages of one repetition maximums. If a power clean requires 1.5 times body weight to transfer, 90% (of less than body weight) doesn’t represent a valuable strategy.

I have compared the resistance value, meaning the results of using one type of modality to another, but the value may be in profiling and individualized training. Resisted sprinting machines are biokinetic devices as well, and the study on customizing resistance with athlete speed is a fine example of the power of techniques. It’s not just the resistance that makes machines special, it’s the software too. Be warned, though: Some companies don’t provide accurate and validated instrumentation, and a few brands provide great data but poor training modalities. Coaches demand both accurate and useful machines, not something that is sexy with no training value.

Equipment I Recommend for Performance and Medical Departments

Now comes my opinions on what I like and what you may value in your situation. Don’t take my word without listening to my rationale, as I want to focus on the reasons for my choices and not just the brands or products. I don’t want to make a list of top solutions, as the list would likely change each year. If I wrote this 10 years ago, it would barely change; today however, it changes every quarter. Technology and innovation are rapid, mainly because manufacturing has improved and digital marketing is so competitive.

Over the last 10 years, I have been working with professional teams and Olympic programs. While no company has yet wowed me on their machine’s ability to transform sport, I certainly have my favorites. Generally, the way I train athletes is likely different than the people I collaborate with, so when I recommend solutions or training systems, I must think about the betterment of the athlete in their respective environments.

One example of this is a team that was with a high-profile college and just had a renovation three years before. They wanted to drop nearly a half-million dollars renovating their weight room to make it literally the same setup with a different rack company. It’s not that equipment providers don’t have their differences, but worrying about the brand logo because you are part of one tribe versus another is questionable. Why not use that money for a staff member for the next few years or to pay interns better?

In my opinion, racks are not machines—they are in a grey area that technically isn’t a direct overload, unless it’s a pull-up station or isometric rig. You buy racks before you buy machines, period. A great rack is quality steel machined with literal laser precision. After a few years, the cheaply made solutions are exposed, and some weight rooms I know are holding up great after three decades. A good rack usually lasts longer than a coach, but it’s replaced for more aesthetic reasons. My recommendation is to go only with companies that work with colleges or large high schools. Flooring and platforms are a different story, as most industrial carpets, rubberized surfaces, and even turf is overpriced.The right reverse leg press is the most important machine a field sport can utilize. CLICK TO TWEET

Video 2. The fusion of instruments and conventional equipment is poised to explode in 2019, mainly due to partnerships between various vendors and sensor companies. Expect the rise of the “smart rack” later in the fourth quarter.

To me, the right reverse leg press is the most important machine a field sport can utilize, whether it provides power or uses any artificial resistance. Second come basic cable machines that are versatile and easy to use. Last are calf machines and seated cable rows. They are wants and not needs, but if you are in high performance, the convenience is simply wonderful to have. It’s not a luxury by any means, but it’s important. Personally, I don’t like neck machines or any machine that you can sleep or nap on, but the YoYo Hamstring is an exception. I recommend using a vertical and horizontal flywheel system, as well as a belt squat or isokinetic squat machine.

As for the more esoteric machines and modern staples, I am a big fan of the Proteus for specific needs, such as early-stage rehabilitation of the hip and shoulder. Their collinear resistance is a perfect fit for baseball shoulder return to play and senior clinics, and the technology will improve down the line. If I had an unlimited budget, I would use the Proteus to complement my rotation training or help with deep stabilizers.

Isokinetic Squat Machine
Image 2. Pro teams love the Isokinetic Squat Machine from FastTwitch. Popular options are split squats, conventional squats, and even pressing.

The Quantum and Keiser cable trainers, along with conventional resistance training, offer excellent versatility and function. Gravity works vertically, but a body can use single-vector cables to create a composite of loading stress, so remember machines will never be as creative as a coach. I also see the value of the isokinetic equipment from FastTwitch as they have a great squat option for coaches looking for a primary leg trainer. Buy what works for your program, but remember that everyone involved has different methods that may favor equipment you do not utilize as much.The best machines will still always be secondary to good coaches. CLICK TO TWEET

In summary, the best machines will always be secondary to good coaches, mainly because conventional training works and movements are universal. Having the best machines at your facility is great if the athletes are there full-time, but in professional settings, traveling or off-season becomes a problem. A good mix of simple racks, solid resistance machines, and a few high-tech solutions is logical. Down the road, we will see more and more equipment that can load the body more aggressively eccentrically, but today we see biokinetic machines as either specialized options or cable machines.

Buyer Beware or Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Don’t stress that you are late to the game or feel that you are a guinea pig. Do what you think is best for your environment now and also think about those who may replace you down the road. You are not investing in equipment just for you—you are building an arsenal for your athletes and your staff. Those who focus on checking the right boxes will find the right solutions, and it’s better to wait for the best option when you are ready than to quickly jump on the bandwagon. Focus on solutions not logos, as a good piece of equipment just needs to help address a problem and nothing else.

A true love for sports

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