Men’s Journal has a very interesting article on how gyms are mostly a money-sucking machine designed to keep people subscribed, but not really using the equipment — equipment which, by the way, doesn’t make you all that fit. At the same time, getting in shape is actually pretty easy to do on your own, for free. If you hire a personal trainer, that’s even worse: his whole job is to make sure he’s indispensable, not to give you the tools to work out on your own.
The article isn’t about losing weight, but rather about getting fit. You could say that one follows the other, and it’s true that getting fit will make you lose weight, but losing weight will not necessarily make you fit. For example, how fit are the starving Somalis, or prisoners in concentration camps? Cardio machines at the gym burn calories, but don’t do much else. The key to being fit is strength. The weight machines in gyms isolate muscles, which prevent injury right away, but actually increase your potential for injury later. Why? Because isolation of the “prime mover” muscles is bad for us: we need to use the whole body in order to also strengthen stabilizing muscles which prevent injury. The imbalance of having strong prime mover muscles and weak stabilizer muscles is like “ trying to fire a cannon from a canoe”. Free weights are excellent for strengthening both types of muscles, and gyms tend to hide these on the periphery.
This is because their business model is based around “new stuff”: new machines, new workouts, new advice on how to not injure yourself. But fitness isn’t rocket science, and pretty much all of the information and free weights have been around for a century. So gyms don’t focus on that. They also don’t focus on fitness fanatics, because they don’t want them crowding the gym working out all the time. So they target the typical office worker who might show up 3 times a week for a month, then quit coming but continue to dutifully pay the membership fee.
The rest of the article talks about advice he got from two people: Rob Shaul, who coaches Special Forces, and Kevin Brown, who fixed injured pro athletes before he died of cancer.
Even in 2010, picking up heavy things, throwing heavy things up over our heads, and pulling heavy things remain the very best ways to replicate our foundational movement patterns.
The other important thing is to avoid injury, which is done by strengthening stabilizing muscles. Here’s a handy chart:
By pressing and dead-lifting on even days, squatting and doing chin-ups on odd days, avoiding all other exercises, and adding a little to the bar each time, you’ll be stronger than you’ve ever been in only a month’s time.