Constraining Your Way To A Better Workout

What is the most ideal tool to use to strengthen your body? It is probably no surprise to anyone that the rational and only answer based in reality is, “it depends”. It depends on a number of things, namely the objective of your workout. To a large degree the tool that you use will impact the adaptation your body makes to said tool. The equipment combined with primarily the individuals effort is what leads to consistent progress.

In the world of exercise this question of what is the ideal tool has been encapsulated by the “free weights vs. machines” argument. The folly of this argument is that the neither of these tools is globally a clear winner. Again, it depends. If your objective is strength exercise designed to give you the greatest return in lean tissue for the time invested, then machines provide a distinct advantage. This isn’t to say that conventional and less stable tools don’t serve a purpose. They actually serve a very important one that ironically can improve the outcomes from machine based training.  The result is always context dependent, and that explanation is for another time.


In the context of strengthening the body with the combined goal of lean tissue and functional improvements in the most efficient and safest manner possible, properly designed equipment(such as the equipment used at PHX Strength) offers several major advantages over free weights in the pursuit of the aforementioned objectives. What makes good equipment more ideal? The imposed mechanical constraints. Proper constraints lead to better outcomes. Usage of constraints to improve a task is known in the world of motor skill development as the Constraints-Led Approach, or CLA. This approach is revolutionizing the world of skill learning and to my knowledge, Automated Muscle is the first theoretical framework to actively use a CLA approach to the instruction of correct strength exercise.


The mechanical constraints on a proper piece of equipment include such things as the arch of the movement arm, the machines resistance curves, apparatus friction, seatbelts, padding, and other types of “mechanical locks.” Proper instruction and use of these constraints limits the degrees of freedom afforded to the body in trying to figure how to move the apparatus. Limiting degrees of freedom clears the path for the body to figure out effective movement solutions. The clearer the path, the less effort an individual has to provide in becoming proficiently skillful in an exercise. Skillful strength exercise is effective and safe strength exercise.


Rather than give an overly complicated and technical explanation of how constraints work, let me provide a simple analogy to understand the concept of how using good exercise equipment constraining your degrees of freedom improves learning and skill acquisition(and thus enjoyment and satisfaction from the activity) of a given exercise. Let’s take learning to bowl. I’m not much of a bowler myself, but if I had to create my own manner of teaching either myself or another person how to bowl, this is how I’d do it.

Anyone who has been to a bowling alley has seen the beginner or “kiddie” lanes whereby the gutters are blocked by rebounding walls that redirect the ball back to the lane. While this is usually done to improve the perceived enjoyment a beginner, kid, or terrible bowler gets from seeing a good score instead of a gutter ball, it actually constrains the bowler to better handle the various environmental factors involved in bowling. The gutter walls provide a clearer and more defined path for the bowler. If this logic was continued and the walls were brought in closer together, the lane would become narrower and thus reduce the freedom of choices the body has in delivering the ball down the lane. The narrower lane needs more efficient and refined bowling  mechanics. As the bowler becomes more skill proficient the walls can be widened and other skills such as spin direction of the ball can be worked on. These higher order skills would be much more difficult to learn for a bowler who was introduced to a wider lane initially. The clarity of the narrower lane reduces options thus focus and speed of error correction. The imposed constraints lead to improved out comes in the acquisition of correct bowling mechanics.


In the same way proper exercise equipment provides constraints that improve the skill of direct strength exercise. Instead of compromising the directness of exercise with equipment that affords the body a plethora of movement options, properly designed equipment reduces these affordances through mechanically imposed constraints. These constraints minimize freedom to improve the result delivered by the workout. That result is more lean muscle tissue and improved functionality in less time with a reduced potential for injury. If that is of interest to you, we may be able to help.