The New Power Circuit: How to Strength Train for Major Results
Making a Change
When you imagine a state-of-the-art gym -- one that's outfitted with the most innovative equipment -- what do you envision? A gleaming, Olympic-style lab with sci-fi-like exercise contraptions that have been crafted by NASA engineers?
Try a padded room with ropes, medicine balls and boxes, where the weight machines you grew up with have been all but weeded out. Gyms, like sneakers, are having a minimalist moment, and they're taking the training wheels off your workout tools. The age of surfing your way through a circuit of strength machines has given way to a new mode of DIY lifting and lunging that science says will make you tighter and stronger in less time.
And the best part: It's easier than ever to get the kind of cutting-edge workouts going on right now at the most elite gyms, even if you're not a member at any. Here's why.The F Word
"If you walked into one of our clubs 10 years ago, you wouldn't have seen any functional fitness equipment and a much larger selection of fixed-path resistance equipment," says David Harris, the vice president of personal training at Equinox, which has 67 clubs nationwide. Harris is giving me a tour of the chain's New York City flagship location on a recent Tuesday morning. We head past a bank of weight-stacked strength machines, all of which are the fixed-path breed he mentioned -- that is, traditional-looking ones that isolate one muscle group, with handlebars that are rigid and therefore ensure that each rep follows an identical trajectory. It's this sameness of lifts that's in part responsible for the fixed-path machines' fall from favor, although there are ways to tease more functionality out of them. (See "Lift Tricks.") Not one of these machines is being used.
We then walk through a section where several men and women are plating up barbells and finally to an open workout area. This is where the real action is. I watch as a twentysomething woman jumps onto a plyo box, counting reps, and as another member hoists a ViPR (short for "vitality, performance and reconditioning") weight -- a rubber log that looks as if it could be a jet muffler. (See "Meet the Muscle Makers.") "Over the last few years, we've devoted 10 to 15 percent of our floor space in our clubs to functional fitness," Harris explains. In practice, that means they've slimmed their stable of up to 30 fixed-path machines down to just 8 to 14. "There's only one machine for each isolated muscle group: one chest press, one shoulder press, one leg press and so on," he says.
Why the seismic shift? It boils down to the buzzword functional.
"Over the last five years, the functional fitness movement has gone mainstream, changing the landscape of the gym," says Diane Vives, a spokeswoman for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Strength training had long evolved from targeting just one muscle group at a time, as fixed-path machines do, to incorporating functional moves -- that is, those that require all your muscles to work together, as they do in real life. Weeding out many of those one-trick-pony weight machines is your gym's way of saying Get up! In other words, sitting on a leg-extension machine is out, and doing squats is in. (Don't worry about cardio machines; they're not going anywhere.)
Gyms have also responded by replacing some of those booted fixed-path styles with models that are more multipurpose or cable-based. By making the path of your lift more free-range, the new weight machines require you to put more muscle into each rep to balance and hoist. And toning more muscle fibers means faster results.
Even if you still love your leg adductor machine (the seated one on which you squeeze your inner thighs together), its days may be numbered. Cybex, one of the nation's top manufacturers of resistance machines, confirms that the workout-floor facelift is only accelerating. "There are indications that some gym operators are ordering fewer of the traditional, fixed-path machines and, instead, opting for cable machines and jungle-gym apparatuses," says kinesiologist Paul Juris, the executive director of the Cybex Research Institute. "I recently had one guy who's opening a gym tell me he's not ordering any fixed-path machines at all."
Take Life Time gyms, which has 113 clubs nationwide. In 2012, the company embarked on what it's calling the Flip. "In most of our clubs, we're taking the large space, where the traditional weight equipment resides, and flipping it out to create significantly more room for functional training," says Jason Stella, the director of education for Life Time Training. Fixed-path weight machines are positioned on the sidelines to give the spotlight to devices like a large metal tower decorated with TRX suspension systems.
Likewise, Town Sports International -- the owner of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington Sports Clubs -- is so convinced that the functional fitness trend is lasting that it has carved out 800 square feet of artificial turf (called a UXF zone) in pretty much all of their 164 locations.
If your club isn't yet showing signs of such radical redesign, it probably will soon, experts say. "I believe this trend is here to stay, and five years from now it will be the norm," predicts Jay Wright, a trainer and the owner of the Wright Fit, a New York City-based company that designs high-end gyms; in the 40 clubs he's developed since 2007, Wright says he's installed just one type of fixed-path machine -- for hamstrings. "At first, about 25 percent of our clientele was asking, 'Where are the strength machines?' and they were not happy about it. Today it's a different story. Everyone's on board with functional training. I compare it with going from eight-track tapes to Spotify."
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