Which is safer – using exercise equipment that stabilizes the weight for you or free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells? Would it surprise you to know that some weight machines can place a lot of stress on the discs of your vertebrae, stress which could injure your low back? Let’s take a look.
Oftentimes when people join a healthclub, they are shown the weight machines, which are usually set up in a circuit where you can go from one machine to another. These people are often new to working out and sometimes a little older, as well.
The common thought is that these machines are easier and thus safer, because you don’t have to stabilize and balance the weights, like you do with a dumbbell. There are a couple flaws in this thinking, however. First, pushing and pulling a weight while seated can place a lot of pressure on your discs.
Studies done in the 70’s looked at different positions and how much pressure was placed on the spine. Sitting resulted in more pressure than standing. The position that resulted in the highest overall stress – sitting while holding weights. This created more pressure than standing and doing different exercises.
Think of how many healthclub exercises place you in a seated position while pushing or pulling a weight. Think of how many exercisers doing this are baby boomers and seniors, thinking that this is safer. How many of these people have probably had some previous back injury which could be irritated or reinjured?!
Makes you think that those free weights aren’t so bad after all, doesn’t it. This doesn’t mean that these people should be attempting to pick up heavy barbells off the floor, but they should be doing more strength training on their feet.
After all, most people who need increased strength to make their activities of daily living easier, should be doing some strength or resistance training in a standing position, as this will have greater carryover to their activities.
One way of doing this, besides using dumbbells, is using weight machines with cables that allow you to push and pull while standing. This makes sure that your “core” – your abs, low back, and hips – can stabilize your spine, obviously very important to prevent back injuries.
These exercises can also be done with resistance bands, which are cheap, portable, and can be used at home, if desired. Doing strength training in this way is also more efficient as you work your midsection at the same time as you work your upper body, unless you enjoy spending more time exercising than you have to.
By the way, which gym exercise puts the most stress on the discs? The leg press. Many people load up as many weight plates as they can to strengthen their legs. But often, the pelvis comes off the support pad while lowering the weight and all that weight is going through your L5-S1 disc, enough stress to create injury at times.
I’ve heard therapist Paul Chek talk about more than a few bodybuilders who have blown a disc in this manner. Just keep that in mind while lifting weights – build strength without causing injury, but don’t create more strength in your legs than you can stabilize with your core.