You've seen it a hundred times – the same thing I saw upon walking into my first brand-name franchise gym: roughly 5 percent taken up by free weights; 5 percent by stretching areas; 50 percent by cardio machines; 50 percent by weight machines. Any reasonable person might conclude that cardio and weight machines are the best gear for getting fit. They're not. Nobody thinks they are – not even the people who make them or the gym owners who buy them.
How many times have you been told to start with a little stretching? Yet multiple studies of pre-workout stretching demonstrate that it actually raises your likelihood of injury and lowers your subsequent performance. Turns out muscles that aren't warmed up don't really stretch anyway, and tugging on them just firms up their resistance to a wider range of motion. In fact, limbering up even has a slackening effect on your muscles, reducing their stability and the amount of power and strength they'll generate.
Cardio machines are innocent enough, as they won't actually make you any less fit, but maintaining cardiovascular fitness doesn't really take much more than breathing uncomfortably hard for about 20 minutes, three times a week. And we all know that swimming, hoops, bike riding, and even Ultimate Frisbee can get the job done, and that treadmills or elliptical trainers are a pale substitute.
Weight machines, on the other hand, are far more insidious because they appear to be a huge technological advance over free weights. But quite the opposite is true: Weight machines train individual muscles in isolation, while the rest of you sits completely inert. This works okay for physical therapy and injury rehab, and it's passable for bodybuilding, but every serious strength-and-conditioning coach in America will tell you that muscle-isolation machines don't create real-world strength for life and sport.
Most gyms do include a few token free weights, but think about where you'll find them: around the edges of the room, like fresh fruits and vegetables in a supermarket that gives all the prime middle-of-the-store shelf space to Frosted Flakes and frozen cheesecake. Truly indispensable gear – like the good old-fashioned adjustable barbell rack, the sine qua non of any remotely serious gym – has, by contrast, become a downright rarity. As for niche but no less important equipment like an Olympic lifting platform, forget about it: The lawyers would never let it through the door.
Here's the problem: If you're in the fitness-equipment business, free weights are a loser. The 2010 model looks too much like the 1950 model, and they both last forever. Far better to create gleaming $4,000 contraptions that can be reinvented every two years, and then hire a PR firm to promote some made-up training theory claiming that machines are the answer, like the now infamous HIT – or High Intensity Training – approach sold by Arthur Jones, inventor of the original Nautilus machines, that explained how moving quickly through an entire, complete circuit of, you guessed it, Nautilus machines, would help you reach your true potential. Meanwhile, the real reason your gym has so many strength machines is that anybody can figure out how to use them, and they make injury nearly impossible.
Commercial health clubs need about 10 times as many members as their facilities can handle, so designing them for athletes, or even aspiring athletes, makes no sense. Fitness fanatics work out too much, making every potential new member think, Nah, this place looks too crowded for me. The winning marketing strategy, according to Recreation Management Magazine, a health club–industry trade rag, focuses strictly on luring in the "out-of-shape public," meaning all of those people whose doctors have told them, "About 20 minutes three times a week," who won't come often if ever, and who definitely won't join unless everything looks easy, available, and safe. The entire gym, from soup to nuts, has been designed around getting suckers to sign up, and then getting them mildly, vaguely exercised every once in a long while, and then getting them out the door.
Now turn to the well-thumbed magazines in your gym's waiting area, the ones you pick up while killing time before the "complimentary personal training session" that comes with your membership. Mainstream men's fitness magazines have no larger mission than profitable advertising sales, which means endless pitches for useless (if not outright dangerous) dietary supplements and articles on "Seven Steps to Great Abs," always omitting the all-important Step Eight: In order to make your six-pack even remotely visible to the naked eye, reduce your total body fat to an inhuman 10 percent.
Next up, shake hands with that nice, buff guy in the "trainer" shirt, and confess that you really don't have a clue how to use a gym but that you're into outdoor sports and you want to stay fit enough to have fun on weekends. He'll nod a lot and pretend to take notes. Then he'll measure your body fat with some high-tech-looking device and ask you lots of questions, ultimately convincing you to hire him twice a week.
I have worked with great trainers before, but it would've been helpful to know that a personal-trainer certificate isn't much more meaningful than a beautician's license – anybody can get one without breaking a sweat or even meeting a single athlete.
But the personal-training business model doesn't include teaching (or even learning) the fundamentals anyway. Trainers make a living by keeping clients coming back; fundamentals liberate clients to train themselves. So the savvy trainer tells you that these days, it's all about "functional fitness," a complex integration of balance and stability and strength. He's taken workshops in it, he tells you, gotten a few extra certifications. Then he just makes every workout fun and varied enough that it seems like a futuristic form of voodoo. According to a Club Industry magazine article by one Nic DeCaire, owner of something called the Fusion Fitness Center in Newark, Delaware, most trainers teach "just enough so that the trainer remains more valuable and indispensable." The same article encourages gym owners to fire any trainer who dresses for work in workout clothes instead of slacks and a polo.
The most amazing element of this little hustle – and I'm speaking from personal experience and from regret – is that it all works like a charm.