Many things improve with age but muscle mass is not one of them.
As muscle mass declines, it’s more difficult to keep your body functional and in a healthy weight zone. Muscle mass can be rebuilt via resistance training, which means exercise in which the muscle contracts against resistance. The resistance can be your own body weight such as in a press-up, a machine such as a chest press or an object such as a dumbbell or weight bag. There are so many sorts of resistance available in the gym it can be difficult to know which type to choose.
Pin-loaded exercise machines first became prevalent in the 1970s and they remain a popular form of resistance training for recreational exercisers. Most are easy to learn and use, many even have a picture to help. Machines force an idealized posture, making them a good choice for people new to exercise. They can be a great tool for rehabilitation because they’re pre-set using only the muscle and angle the machine allows. They are also a safe option if you’re lifting heavy weights without assistance.
Machines have gone out of fashion a little because they don’t allow a full range of motion or encourage the body to stabilise for itself. Free weights such as dumbbells and barbells have become more popular because they require the body to move in a more natural way and they activate stabilizer muscles as well as main muscle groups. Traditionally the free weights section of the gym was the dominated by large men but over the past couple of decades it has become a mainstream space for all recreational exercisers.
The most recent exercise trend is towards functional exercises that challenge not only stabilizers but also co-ordination and balance. Functional exercises tend to be complex multi-joint, multi-muscle, multi-plane activities using upper and lower body simultaneously. Machines have crept off the gym floor to create space to use tools and toys such as swiss balls, bosu balls, TRX cables, weight bags and kettle bells. A strong functional body is more versatile and less prone to injury. But ironically, many people pursuing functional fitness end up injured and ultimately less functional than when they began. The more complex the exercise the more important the technique and the higher the risk if you get it wrong.
It can be hard to pick fitness fashions from fitness fads. The best type of resistance exercise for you will depend on your physical condition, your goals and your personal preferences. Most of my clients were semi-sedentary before they joined the gym and they just want to lose 5 or 10kgs in the most efficient way possible. Each individual needs to make the choice of how functional they need to be and what level of risk is acceptable to achieve it. Some people really enjoy complex exercises, some like traditional free weights and some are most comfortable on machines. Most people are happy with a mix of exercise types over time.
There’s no right answer. Any type of resistance exercise can build lean muscle mass and burn calories as long as the program is well constructed and regularly changed up. The key to a programme’s effectiveness is adherence and the key to adherence is enjoyment. Just do what works for you.