*No judgments are being made in this article. Let it be known that any and all movement is better than no movement at all. These are simply observations after many years of spending countless hours in a gym while training and working. If you’re in the gym or being active outside of a gym, kudos to you and keep it up.*
Have you ever noticed the body types and shapes that tend to migrate to different areas of your gym? To me, there are three main areas of a gym (at least most commercial gyms) where people spend most of their time:
Cardio Area: These folks spend most of their time on the elliptical, treadmill, stationary bike or stair stepper. They may spend 30-60 minutes on a single machine every time they come in the gym. If they have a reason for spending a lot of time on cardio equipment, it’s usually about burning calories, and the ones who are new to exercise may even believe that the “calories burned” numbers on the machines are accurate (typically not). Does their body ever change on the outside or look different from month-to-month? Are they pushing themselves, or just watching TV or reading while working at a leisurely walk-in-the-park pace?
Chances are, those on cardio equipment all the time are lacking one major piece to a healthy program – weight training. Performing countless hours of cardio has a knack for leading people in the opposite direction – to spending MORE time exercising and getting FEWER results. Resistance training tends to move people towards getting MORE results over time and spending LESS time doing it. Why? Because the body physiologically adapts to the same calorie-burning activity over time (when body composition is similar). Essentially, if you were to run 3 miles a day 3 times per week in your 20’s, doing that same amount of activity in your 30’s at the same intensity and at a similar body weight/body composition will burn fewer calories. The body is smart and will adapt by burning less energy to go the same distance.
This is just one reason why performing cardio solely to burn calories isn’t the most effective weight maintenance strategy over time.
Weight Machines Area: Take a peek at those using the weight machines. They may know what they’re working by reading the diagram and following directions – ultimately aiming to hit every muscle group they can think of. Is the machine adjusted to fit their body and limb length? Are they pushing themselves to get better, or going through the motions? Or are they actually using the machine completely wrong?
These folks have a good idea. They tend to be the ones spending equal time performing cardio and weight training – because they’re not super serious about lifting weights but they know it’s good for them. But, all too often they aren’t utilizing the weight machines as best they could. If you do use weight machines but aren’t sure where you should be feeling it or if you’re using it correctly, please have someone qualified help you through it. It may seem like “move this part in this direction” is all you need to do to benefit, but there are many ways to screw up using a simple weight machine.
Free Weights Area: Now look at the people who spend most of their time in the free weights area – near the dumbbells, barbells, squat racks and platforms. What do their bodies look like? Strong? Lean? Powerful? Do they seem to know what they’re doing? Do they come in and appear to be following a plan? Do they seem to be having “fun”?
These are the folks who usually wear something like this:
They tend to keep track of their performance and progress while weight training so they can lift more weights, get stronger, and build the body they want over time. These folks sometimes also forget that performing cardio regularly isn’t going to make them lose muscle mass and that it’s also important because it’s good for their heart.
Pros and Cons
Those who only spend time on weight machines and never venture to the cardio equipment or free weights are missing out on two things. First, they’re likely not going to get their heart rate up (losing cardiovascular benefits) like they would performing cardio when sticking to weight machines because often times those machines aren’t taxing their cardiovascular system like dumbbell walking lunges would. Second, their stabilizing muscles, core muscles, and balance aren’t going to develop as quickly or to the same extent as they would using free weights. They may put in a good deal of effort for less-than-optimal returns. On the plus side, it’s easier to use weight machines and avoid injury than it is lifting with free weights if you don’t have experience.
Those who spend most of their time in the free weight area are going to see more benefit than those on weight machines, but can still miss out on the benefits of cardio if they neglect to add that portion to their training program. They have better core strength and know that building a body you’re proud of takes a lot of weights and a lot of patience. They will end up having the strongest muscles, joints, and bones, and they’ll constantly be able to work towards new goals that are easily measurable by using a very wide variety of training types and exercises. (Remember the difference between a process goal and outcome goal). On the downside, without the proper instruction or technique, it can be easier to injure yourself lifting free weights than it is using weight machines.
Those who spend most of their time on cardio equipment will likely have the strongest cardiovascular system but won’t have as great a proportion of lean body mass to fat mass. Their daily caloric burn will likely be less than a weight lifter at rest due to their smaller amount of muscle mass. They may be more susceptible to overuse injuries that can occur from not having a well-rounded program, such as IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, or shin splints. Over time, those spending most of their time on cardio equipment will lose more lean muscle mass and strength each year if they neglect to add weight training to their routine.
Considering all of this, I’ll make it simple for you. If you want to look like a certain body type, train like that certain body type. If you want to look like a world-class marathon runner, train to become as fast (or as close as you can get) as a world-class marathon runner. If you want to look like a powerlifter, train like a powerlifter. If you want to look like a cardio bunny, then go to the gym and be a cardio bunny.
Moral of the story is spending a majority of your time lifting weights (free weights if possible) and including 3-5 days per week of some type of cardio (HIIT, LISS, tennis, swimming, etc.) is going to result in a well-rounded and [hopefully] well-functioning body.
Look around at your gym and find a person or two who look like they’ve accomplished (with their own uniquely-shaped body, that you will not end up looking like) what you’re after and become friends with them. Learn what they do, how they train, how they eat and how they keep it fresh. If they have well-developed body parts that you wish you could improve on your own body, find out what they do to train them to get new ideas. Most people are very open to talking about their training – just don’t do it at the wrong time – you know, like while their headphones are in and their hat is pulled over their eyes or by lurking behind them and making eye contact in the mirror while they’re at the bottom of a straight-leg deadlift.