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Q&A Strength/Conditioning: Part II.

In our PowerLine last month, we answered several of the most frequently asked questions put to us over the past few years, and we'd now like to finish the Q's and A's and offer a few perspectives on a couple of controversial issues.


Q Which is better for strength/power development: Free weights or machines?

A The question always ignites a fiery debate among three groups:

1. The "free weight" contingent who maintains that barbells, dumbbells, and similar implements represent the only real ways to strength-train.

2. The "machine only" group who feels much the same about their approach.

3. The group that uses both methods liberally, and is open-minded about the benefits of each.

I've been a card-carrying member of Group 3 for over 40 years. When I was 10 years old, any frayed cable pulley that rattled and squeaked was my idea of a machine. And all of the high tech, gleaming, and computerized gadgets of the spandex generation were nothing more than crude drawings on graph paper.

Free weights were my first love. They have a hard-core appearance with that tough "feel" which is difficult to replicate.

Yet, as each new machine emerged, I was open-minded enough to give it a try. Experimentation and experience have taught me that the good machines have some definite benefits, and that combining them with free weights provides a well-rounded workout plan.

Free weights provide the challenge of balancing the load, a component that may require the recruitment of more "assistive" musculature than the machine counterpart of the same movement. This balancing aspect is due to the absence of guiding mechanisms (i.e., rods, cams, cables, chains, etc.) to restrict the movement path.

The rate and level of this assistive recruitment isn't as conclusive in the scientific literature as we would like to see, but it must be taken into account.

Some advocates of free-weight training offer the unsubstantiated claim that this balance aspect will transfer to sports skills. There are literally hundreds of totally independent balancing situations that athletes are exposed to.

The neuromuscular pathway and concurrent encoding that is developed with a lifting skill has little, if any, bearing on the development of a sport skill. Sure, the strength and metabolic improvements accrued from training will enhance overall performance, but skills are another matter. Remember, similarity is not specificity. Check last month's article for a discussion on specificity.

Barbells and dumbbells are extremely versatile and can be used by just about everyone, regardless of body type or size. Due to their freestanding nature, however, it's important to see that the appropriate supervision, spotting, and instruction are utilized.

Machines offer some distinct advantages of their own. Many of them provide variable resistance, which helps accommodate the strength curve of the movement. Simply put, it is a mechanism in the machine's design (cam or leverage system) that adjusts the loads (higher or lower) to varying biomechanical positions along the path of movement.

Machines also allow the trainee to target specific areas that are difficult to reach with free weights (e.g., neck, inner and outer thigh/hip) and helps reduce the previously mentioned synergistic effect when attempting to pinpoint a certain area.

One other advantage of machines: They may be required in the early stages of rehab because they may be easier to use in a restricted range of motion.

So, which exercise mode is better? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Muscular adaptations to strength training appear to be similar, if not identical, regardless of the mode used. Well-established principles in neuro-muscular physiology point to progression, overload, and intensity as the paramount constituents in improving strength, power, and muscular growth.

Muscles do not possess the innate ability to discern whether the resistance originates from the machine, free weight, sandbag, bucket of water, or even a baby Brahma bull.

Anytime someone who denies the effectiveness of one mode confronts you, or claims that one is superior to the other, simply ask him to provide the necessary scientific burden of proof.

A thorough investigation of smoking-gun proposals on either side will usually reveal a personal bias, rather than rock-solid facts.


* Use whatever you believe in and with adherence to the basic Principle of Progressive Overload: As the muscles adapt to a given load, you must increase the load, increase the reps, or increase both.

* Try to be open-minded about the equipment modes currently available. While none of them is perfect, just about all of them have something positive to offer. The variety alone will do wonders for the training atmosphere.

Q How Can I Bulk-Up?

A This is the most popular question by the 13-18 age group. My initial reply is, "What do you mean by bulking-up?" Their answer: "You know, Coach, I want to get huge!"

Some muscle magazines, health-food stores, and infomercials have given young people a distorted perception of the human body. Unfortunately, some of those glistening, hulking bodies adorning the magazine covers and billboards were achieved with more than just the breakfast of champions. Steroids, human growth hormone, and many other unsafe, illegal physique-enhancing drugs continue to poison our youth.

Athletes have to learn that it isn't enough to want to gain lean (muscle) weight. They have to know how to go about it and to avoid snake-oil advertising. Some of it can put weight on your body while thinning out your wallet.

The first thing I tell a young athlete is to be patient. Achieving the muscular body they desire is going to be a tough journey with no shortcuts. Eating properly, training hard and smart, getting plenty of rest, and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits are the all important ports of call.

The athlete should not be discouraged by the difficulty of putting on the good weight. It may proceed at a snail's pace. But if they are doing it right, the weight they do gain will mostly be the good weight they can put on without any undesired side effects.

A 20% calorie boost is a good starting point for most athletes. Example: If an athlete's diet currently consists of 3,000 calories a day, with no weight gain over a long period of time, the calories should be upped 20% to 3,600 per day.

Adding three 200-calorie snacks--one between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and dinner, and one before bedtime--will usually do the trick. The nutrient composition of these snacks should be the same as the larger meals-65% carbohydrate, 15% protein, and 20% fat. (Check the December 2001 "PowerLine" for a comprehensive look on how to check food labels for nutrient information.)

The numerous strength-training approaches we have prescribed will ensure you of weight gains in the form of muscle. Regardless of his dietary approach, the athlete must make sure to stimulate his musculature through the intensity, volume, frequency, and duration of his strength program and include an appropriate recovery and growth period before the next sessions.

Whenever extreme fatigue, soreness, and steady, unwanted weight loss are experienced, the athlete is probably over-training and should be told to back off a bit.

Q What About Supplements?

A Remember that "supplement" means "in addition to," so it all goes back to doing the right things in the first place. We tell our athletes that if they do not eat the proper amounts of nutrients via wholesome food such as lean meat, poultry, fish, fruits, and vegetables, don't expect a magic elixir to get the job done.

What does a supplement consist of, anyway? In the best-case scenario, it will contain many of the same nutrients in the foods mentioned above. In the worst-case scenario, it will contain harmful, and possibly illegal ingredients that can cause nothing but problems across the board.

Remember: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited control over supplement companies, and basically places the onus for safety, compliance, and ingredient integrity in the hands of the manufacturers.

Eminently qualified dieticians and physicians continually tell us that if you are getting what you need from real food, you don't have to search for a more expensive quick fix.

However, it is understood that athletes will, at times, benefit from a convenient, liquid calorie boost. Especially athletes who are constantly on the run and have tight time schedules.

There are reputable companies (e.g., Gatorade) that provide well-researched nutritional drinks that can be used as the between-meals snacks mentioned earlier. The carbohydrate and electrolyte laden sports drinks can also be beneficial in hot, humid weather.


If you choose to purchase supplements, we advise you to research them thoroughly and be fully aware of what you're getting. The supplement industry is truly a "buyer beware" market. It is imperative for collegiate athletes to compare the listed ingredients on any supplement they are considering with the NCAA List of Banned Substances to be sure they are in compliance with the rules and will not fail any impending drug tests.

Before taking a supplement, the following questions should be answered:

* Do you really need this, or are your current dietary habits simply inadequate?

* Have you checked the research and/or consulted with your parents, coaches, athletic trainer, and physician on the safety and efficacy of the product.

* Are you being influenced to take it because of a friend or big-name endorser? Are these legitimate reasons to take a supplement?

* Have you checked the label for all of the ingredients, including possibly harmful and/or illegal substances?

* Does this supplement have any potentially harmful side effects, such as exacerbating a state of dehydration in hot, humid weather?

Additional note: Be extremely leery about ordering supplements over the Internet, as there is no guarantee of the contents, packaging, and safety of the product.

BY KEN MANNIE Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University


Ken Mannie, Michigan State University

Duffy Daugherty Building,

East Lansing, MI 48824 or

via email at
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Title Annotation:Powerline
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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