Our fitness experts tackle your questions on the best weight machines, improving lung capacity, and more.
What weight machines should I use?
Q1: I’ve heard that free weights offer advantages over machines. If so, are there any weight machines that are worth using?
A: Free weights do offer advantages over machines. Most important, they give you freedom to move naturally, says Lou Schuler, CSCS, coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged. “Your body is designed to push, pull, run, jump, lift, carry, and throw. When you stick to moves that use the body the way you would use it for survival, that’s how you properly develop muscles.”
Free weights also allow you to combine movements and work multiple muscle groups at once, which adds a cardiovascular challenge, making your workout more efficient and comprehensive.
Some weight machines, however, may be worth incorporating into your routine. Your deciding factor should be how much versatility a machine allows: Does it force your body to move in a certain way, or does it let you control your movement pattern and range of motion?
Most cable-pulley systems fall into the latter category. Cable exercises typically allow movement through multiple planes and require core stabilization, making them similar to free-weight exercises, says Schuler. And since you can perform many exercises while standing, some movements, such as a chest press, can actually become more full-body than when done with dumbbells or a barbell. The best cable machines allow you to widen, narrow, raise, or lower your hand or foot position, or perform a move on one side of your body at a time. This allows you to do an endless variety of exercises specific to your goals.
Fixed-arm machines allow for only rigid movements and reduce the need to engage core muscles or small stabilizer muscles. This prevents you from developing the stability and kinesthetic awareness required for most real-world movements.
A good example of this limitation is the hip-adductor machine, which involves sitting and squeezing your inner thighs together. Use this piece of equipment regularly and, yes, you will build strong adductor muscles. But your inner-thigh muscles are not intended to squeeze heavy loads while in a seated position; they’re intended to fire as you lower into a wide squat.
If you want to improve how your adductors function while squatting, running, or doing other natural movements, says Schuler, try sumo or plié squats instead. “You’re better off strengthening your adductors in tandem with all the other muscles they are supposed to work with.”
There is one exception. Such isolated movements may be warranted when a physical therapist prescribes them for the purpose of activating and strengthening a weak or injured muscle. But be wary of continuing the protocol for too long. You should eventually progress to more-functional, multijoint movements that do not require machines. — Nicole Radziszewski
What’s the best way to measure body-fat percentage?
Q1: Is it important to know my body-fat percentage? What is the most accurate way to measure it?
A: Since neither weight nor body mass index (BMI) distinguishes between muscle and fat, your body-fat percentage is a better indicator of your body composition and overall health. It is the measurement that reveals when a lightweight individual has a disproportionate amount of body fat, or when someone with a muscular physique is leaner than the scale suggests, says Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT, a New York City–based personal trainer and founder of BuiltLean.com.
Body fat affects a lot: your life expectancy, how you look in a pair of jeans, how fast you can run. In excess, it can contribute to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Conversely, lowering your body fat relative to your body weight can help improve health and athletic performance in most sports.
A number of methods can estimate your body-fat percentage — the most accurate and least expensive option being the three-site skinfold caliper test, which is used by most certified personal trainers. During this procedure, an expert uses a caliper to pinch and measure fat at three sites on the body (different for men and women). These measurements are then used in an equation to determine body-fat percentage.
Handheld devices or scales that estimate body-fat percentage use a method called bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA). These readings fluctuate based on hydration and have been found to be less accurate than caliper measurements, Perry says. For individuals who are 40 or more pounds overweight, Perry advises using BIA to get a baseline measurement, since getting an accurate reading from a caliper can be challenging. He also suggests people test at the same time each day — preferably first thing in the morning, after using the bathroom.
Once you know your approximate body-fat percentage, you’ll need to refer to a chart to interpret what the number means for you. Women typically have a higher percentage than men do, and body fat naturally increases with age. The American Council of Exercise provides the chart “Percent Body Fat Norms for Men and Women”. — Nicole Radziszewski
Can I improve my lung capacity?
Q3: Are there breathing or strength-building exercises I can do to build my lung capacity?
A: “The short answer is no,” says Susan Hopkins, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and radiology at the University of California, San Diego. The lung is one organ you cannot really train, and there is little we can do to change it. “When it comes to lung capacity and ability to exchange oxygen, you have pretty much everything you are going to have by the time you reach the age of 12.”
That said, you can take steps to tone the muscles that help you inhale and exhale.
“If your breathing muscles get fatigued, breathing breaks down, and then you become even more fatigued,” explains sports physiologist Mike Bracko, EdD. That can lead to poor posture, which perpetuates the cycle. Picture the slouch of a marathon runner on mile 24: She’s tired and her shoulders are slouched forward. In this posture, her chest muscles are contracted and she’s not engaging her core muscles, which are vital for efficient respiration. Her posture limits her ability to get air in her lungs, and less air further increases her fatigue.
So how do you boost the fitness of your lung-supporting muscles? It’s the same way you do it for your body. According to Bracko, any kind of training — whether it’s steady-state cardio or anaerobic intervals — helps tone those hidden-but-vital muscles.
You also can strengthen your respiratory muscles by blowing out and breathing in against resistance, adds Hopkins. Specially designed breathing masks that provide resistance to air intake and expulsion are available. Blowing up a balloon or trying to breathe in through a narrow tube like a straw will provide the same benefit for a fraction of the cost. — Wendy Watkins