Safety / Injuries
Lost Art and Science of Old School Weight Training
Many, many years ago, long before many current gym enthusiasts were even born, gyms had platforms for old school weight training. In fact, more gyms had platforms than did not.
At some point in gym and fitness history, the platform went the way of the dinosaurs, to be replaced by shiny, fancy machines for strength training. Machines that surely had to be more effective and safer than traditional lifting, right?
It may come as a surprise to even the most well-educated and experienced modern trainers, but the truth is that research tells us that old-school lifting is better and prevents more injuries than any weight machine.
For decades, the only way to get stronger was to use simple weights and to lift them up in various ways; no fancy machines required.
If this is true, how did we end up with gyms packed with Medieval-looking weight machines and no good, old-fashioned platforms for free lifting?
I believe that what happened is a lot to do with marketing and the inevitable interweaving of gyms and the equipment industry. Those companies making gym equipment could only sell so many platforms and simple iron weights. They needed to develop and devise ever more complicated and expensive equipment.
If gyms didn’t buy into this new equipment, they were considered to be out of touch and out of date. And that’s how we lost the good, old platform.
Umm…So What’s a Platform?
If you’re too young to have any idea of what I’m talking about when I refer to platforms for lifting, let me explain.
Back when gyms were much less flashy places than they are today, we lifted with simple weights made of iron. Dropping those weights on the floor was a gym faux pas. It was noisy and damaged the floor.
So, lifters were encouraged to slowly lower weights—which now we know is beneficial for more than just the floor and the courtesy of other gym goers—and were given platforms to lift on so that if a slip-up happened it wouldn’t ding the floor or cause anyone to jump.
The platform also served as a safety boundary. If you were lifting on the platform, there was a safe zone keeping other people far enough away from you to avoid being hurt.
Sounds like a great idea, right? Unfortunately, the platform in a gym is all but extinct today, but some of us are hoping for a comeback. Why? Let me share the research with you.
A Platform Forces You to Stand
Perhaps the main reason I hope to see platforms come back to every gym is this:
The most important benefit of doing your exercises on a platform is that you are standing.
You aren’t sitting, lying, leaning or supporting yourself in any other way. Your synergistic muscles, grip muscles, stabilizer muscles, and prime movers are all synchronously moving the greatest resistance possible, each contributing uniquely to the effort to force an adaptive response.
This does not happen efficiently in the modern gym. In fact, it rarely happens at all.
This isn’t to say that it couldn’t. It’s just that in today’s gyms, little of scientific weight training methodology is known or practiced.
This may sound shocking, but consider how many injuries you see in most gyms, largely shoulder and lower back injuries. Also, consider how many people you see drop out of strength training. According to industry reports, dropout rates are greater than 80 percent.
What’s So Bad about Sitting?
Strength training machines have you lying, sitting, leaning, or otherwise being supported by the machine, and this is not the optimal way to develop strength. Two major problems:
A greater chance for injury
A greater chance for failure
Dr. Pat O’Shea, author of one of the first college text ever written on weight training (Scientific Principles and Methods of Strength Fitness, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976), elaborated on the benefits of free weight training versus machine training. He listed ten perils of machine training:
- No machine can provide a full range of multiple joint movements as well as free weights.
- Motor skill engrams aren’t established with machines as well as with free weights.
- The carry-over value of free weight training is superior to that provided by machine training.
- Machine training won’t help you develop a high level of fluid, dynamic full-range athletic strength.
- The body is a homogeneous unit that engages in ballistic movements, particularly those generated by strong hip thrust.
- Machine training doesn’t provide for training variety and variability.
- Machines don’t permit the mind and body to develop in synchronization.
- Machine training does not stress the psycho-endocrine systems.
- Machine training fails to provide a positive training experience.
- Machine training is not conducive to continuous long-term motivation.
I elaborated on these ten points in Power: A Scientific Approach nearly 28 years ago (Contemporary Books, 1989). They explain why so many people fail to get themselves in peak condition if all they do is train with machines.
They also explain why people get injured so often in the gym. Moving through machine-prescribed patterns and ranges of motion just isn’t how the body was designed to operate.
But both O’Shea and I only hinted at the one important point that needs to be addressed. It comes closer to explaining the injuries and drop-out rates. The simple fact is that, with the use of machines, you’re almost always sitting, lying or leaning.
There is a lot of information from recent fitness research that demonstrates the risks of injury are far greater training on machines than lifting free weights while standing.
It seems strange initially, right? It’s easy to assume that these complicated machines were designed to prevent injury. Not so according to the data:
- Weightlifters using Olympic-style lifts have less than half the injury rate per 100 hours of training than do those engaged in other forms of weight training; 17 vs 35. (Hamill, B. Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(1):53-57. 1994)
- Retired Olympic weightlifters have lower lifetime incidence and prevalence of low back pain than a control group of normal active men of similar age; 23% vs. 31%. (Granhed, H. et. al. Low back pain among retired wrestlers and heavyweight lifters. The American Journal of Sports Medicine,16(5):530-533. 1988)
- Mike Stone, et. al. provided an excellent review of the research literature on this topic. The inescapable conclusion was that weightlifting is indeed the safest method of weight training. (Stone, M. H., A. C. Fry, M. Ritchie, L. Stoessel-Ross, and J. L. Marsit. Injury potential and safety aspects of weightlifting movements. Strength and Conditioning. June: 15-21. 1994)
Here’s Why We Should All Be Lifting While Standing
Arthur Drechsler, author of the single most important book ever written on Olympic weightlifting (The Weightlifting Encyclopedia, A is A Communications, New York, 1997), listed eight benefits of free lifting that are not seen with machines:
- Olympic lifts (like the snatch and the clean and jerk as well as related lifts) teach an athlete how to explode.
- The practice of proper technique in the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete to apply force with muscle groups in the proper sequences.
- In mastering the Olympic lifts, the athlete learns how to accelerate objects under varying degrees of resistance.
- The athlete learns to receive force from another moving body effectively and becomes conditioned to accept such forces.
- The athlete learns to move effectively from an eccentric contraction to a concentric one.
- The actual movements performed while executing the Olympic lifts are among the most common and fundamental in all sports.
- Practicing the Olympic lifts trains an athlete’s explosive capabilities, and the lifts themselves measure the effectiveness of the athlete in generating explosive power to a greater degree than most other exercises they can practice.
- The Olympic lifts are just plain fun to do.
It's not just machines that eliminate these benefits of Olympic lifting. Consider the use of a bench. It seems simple enough, but lying or sitting on a bench limits the support and stabilizer requirements that are a part of lifting while standing.
As an example, let’s look at bench pressing. Lying on your back with 300 or more pounds in your hands presses your scapulae into the flat bench beneath. You lower the bar to your chest. But the scapulae are pinned to the bench and cannot slide inwards as you lower the bar.
They also can’t slide outward as you raise the bar off your chest. Lifting while lying on a bench puts harmful stress on the tendons of the long heads of your biceps. The results?
- Nagging and long-lasting pain from biceps tendinitis,
- Limits on the amount of weight that can be lifted,
- Limits on improvements in strength, and
- Reduced performance in sports and daily activities.
And then there’s this problem: Benches are made at a height of about 16 inches off the ground. This is dangerous for shorter athletes, who have to go into spinal hyperextension in order to keep their feet flat on the ground for better stability. The results?
- Low back trauma,
- Reduced stability during training and limited amount of weight that can be lifted,
- Poor sports performance, or (worse)
- Ruined sports career or quitting the gym because of injuries.
And these are just some of the possible detrimental side effects of one of the simplest weight machines available.
Make Platform Lifting Safe and Effective
Platform lifting already is safe and effective, according to the research.
However, as with any type of fitness, there are some points of caution. To maximize the safety and effectiveness of platform training, avoid the following:
- Poor technique. No type of weight lifting will be beneficial—and is likely to be harmful—if you don’t utilize good techniques.
- A weak foundation. Never jump into any new type of fitness routine without first building a solid foundation for strength, conditioning, posture, and technique.
- Improper frame of mind. It is important to focus and be dedicated while lifting if you want to see results.
- Repeating until failure. Don’t keep going with a movement until fatigue forces you to fail.
So, Should I Abandon Machines And Benches?
Although I promote the benefits of a traditional platform and Olympic lifting, I don’t advocate for abandoning all the machines. They are effective as supplements to a varied workout.
Charles Staley put it rather succinctly in his article on explosive lifting:
“Legions of successful competitive bodybuilders have achieved their goals without using these techniques. However, it has been my experience that many top physique stars have achieved their success in spite of their training methods and habits, not because of them.”
When you have a superior somatotype and a favorable hormonal system to support it, and when you have the ability to train hard on a consistent basis, you don't need to sweat the details. Try hard enough, be dedicated enough, and you will succeed with either platform or machine lifting.
Most people in the gym are not these dedicated lifters or professional bodybuilders, though. Most of us can benefit from some variety in our training.
If you feel like your training goals have stalled and you’re getting bored with your workouts, instead of quitting, try weightlifting.
With the right supervision, this can be a great way to see better results and to just have more fun in the gym. I recommend calling the United States Weightlifting Federation to find a qualified coach in your area.
Will platforms ever make a comeback in the gym? Maybe not, market forces being what they are. But one thing is clear. It won’t happen unless you demand better lifting programs, muscle magazines and lifting websites start talking about it, and personal trainers get a better experience with old school platform training.
Dr. Fred Hatfield
1. Hamill ,B. Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(1):53-57. 1994
Found weightlifting to have lower rates of injury per 100 hours than other forms of weight training.
2. Andrews et al. Knee Shear Forces during a Squat Exercise using a Barbell and a Weight Machine. Biomechanics, 4B: 923-927. 1983
Found knee shear forces to be 30-40% greater on the weight machine than with the barbell exercise.
3. Granhed, H. et al. Low back pain among retired wrestlers and heavyweight lifters. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(5):530-533. 1988
Retired olympic weightlifters had lower lifetime incidence and prevalence of low back pain than a control group of normal active men of similar age, (23% vs. 31%).
4. Brooks V Physical Therapy 63, 5: 664-665.