There are No Machines on the Course
Lawrence J. Caldwell
When was the last time you ran an obstacle course race and you had to do a set of reps on some machine? Or maybe the machine itself was an obstacle. I’ve seen plenty of training gyms with monkey bars, warped walls, and other things typically seen on a course. But I’ve never seen a machine on a course. The closest was an air rower or bike at a Spartan Stadium Sprint. Otherwise, no Universals, no machines like you see in hotel gyms, no machines like you see lined up row by row at Bally’s. So why do OCR athletes seem to spend any time on these things?
Last week I worked out with a friend at a gym we use when we travel. He spends his time on machines while I do most of my WODs doing functional bodyweight stuff. I finished early so I went to see how he was doing. He was locked into a machine doing oblique crunches. I noted that he could crank an impressive 150 pounds. I was even more impressed that he knocked out dozens of reps with ease.
Now here’s the thing about my buddy. He always complains that he lacks grip strength and is unable, after two years of training and OCR, to climb a rope or a wall. Yet I see him farmer carry half his body weight for two hundred yards no problem. Something just does not add up.
I told him that I did not think I could do 150 pounds on the oblique machine. He was certain that I could because he knows that I can do pretty much any obstacle on the course with ease. I was able to do about five reps with good technique. That got me thinking.
Then he moved over to the ab crunch machine. He likes to work his abs he says because he feels like he doesn’t have any. I wondered if he felt this way because he couldn’t see his six pack or because he honestly felt that he was not strong. I quickly discounted the latter as he banged out dozens of reps with a hundred pounds. Again I told him I did not think I could do that much weight. He laughed and said of course I could. Again I got maybe five good reps then felt the strain telling me I would have to cheat to get any more.
So my buddy says to me that maybe I should start doing more weighted stuff and then I could be even faster, stronger, and smoother on the obstacles. Perhaps he has a point. But on the other hand, when I told him again that there are no machines on the course and that he should do more of my style of training, he never makes the switch. And so he still can’t do the monkey bars, the rig, or the rope.
Machines force a few things on the body that may or may not be good. In a lot of cases, because I am tall, I don’t fit the machine too well. This can force a posture or position that may cause cumulative trauma. In every case, the machine forces a focus on one particular muscle set or small group. Take the oblique and crunch machines for example. My buddy is strong as an ox on these things. He can do reps all day long. But his core is weak. He can’t hold a plank for more than thirty seconds. The core is a whole lot more than abs and obliques. And there’s no machine that can work all the stabilizers, flexors, and tensor muscle groups involved in the core.
I agreed with him therefore that the machines (and free weights) can be good for targeted muscle strength training. But I have seen plenty of very strong and fit looking men and women on the course who cannot complete obstacles. Granted, technique plays a huge role in obstacle success. But I will argue that technique is divided into two parts. Part A is knowing and ably using the right moves. Part B however, is having the functional strength to do those moves. The body must be trained in many different and often unstable manners to gather the necessary overall strength.
For example, the key to doing a good, full range of motion pull up is not strong lats. My friend spends hours on the lat machine, slowly weaning himself off the compensation weights while supported on his knees. His goal is to do standard pullups. I keep telling him to strengthen his core. The core lock is the key to gaining the necessary mechanical leverage that gives the athlete the ability to execute pullups. Lat strength is secondary. Without the ability to core lock, you will simply be pulling up dead weight. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the advanced athlete. But it is very poor technique for those who want to climb ropes and walls on the course.
I find that static and dynamic planking are the best overall core training exercises. This month, my team, the Philly Spartans, are doing a thirty-day plank challenge. I’m leading the charge with a different plank every day. You can see all my videos here on my Facebook page. Start where you are able with good form and technique. When these fail, stop. It’s not about time. It’s all about technique. Time will increase as your muscle memory across all the stabilizers improves.
Now if you say that you’ve never seen anyone doing a plank on the course, I’d agree with you, sort of. What you will see are athletes vaulting walls, pulling up on ropes, crawling low through the mud beneath barbed wire, and flying across rigs. Every one of these and more are simply modifications of the core lock learned by perfecting the plank. That’s why I do so many different kinds. Now get off the machines and hit the floor!