Dan Riley, the long-time strength and conditioning coach of the Washington Redskins (winning multiple Super Bowls with head coach Joe Gibbs) and later the strength coach for the Houston Texans, has had the single greatest influence on how professional and high-level college football players strength train. In fact, Dan’s influence is largely responsible for the intelligent strength training that took place across the NFL in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Important side note: The strength training performed in professional and college football has regressed significantly over the last decade).
Dan was the first strength coach to abandon the long-held axiom that free-weights were superior to machines in the pursuit of producing gains in muscle size and strength. Riley judiciously included machines, manual resistance, body weight resistance, and the occasional free-weight with the athletes he worked with over a 40-year career. Although Riley had a leaning toward machines because they allowed his players to strength train in a safer manner, his mantra was, “It’s not the tool, but how the tool is used that is important.”
Decades later, research supports Riley’s contention. Our muscles simply need to contract against an external load thus leading to muscle failure; the inability to perform another perfect repetition. This can be achieved with a machine, a free-weight, or a cinder block. Regardless of the form of resistance, Riley coached athletes to move the weight slow enough to eliminate momentum to ensure tension was kept on the working muscle (thus making the exercise more challenging for our muscles and simultaneously safer for our joints). Riley’s message was controversial because it departed from the cultural emphasis on exercises such as the barbell squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean.
Bottom line: “It’s not the tool, but how the tool is used that is the major determinate of the results we will produce.”
Further reading: You may ask yourself, why would Discover Strength spend the money to purchase expensive machines if the mode of resistance doesn’t matter? I encourage you to read the Fit Tip from 2016, “The Major Limitation of a Free Weight: Unilateral Resistance”
Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus Sports Medical Industries and later the MedX Corporation succinctly stated, “Man is a rotary animal.” When we contract our muscles, we are causing rotational movement around a joint or a series of joints. Herein lies the primary limitation of a free-weight; while our joints are causing rotary movement, gravity acts on a free-weight in only one direction. The end result is that in most free-weight exercises, the targeted muscle is exposed to direct resistance for only a small portion of the range of motion. An intelligently designed machine includes design elements that make the resistance omnidirectional; thus, our muscles must create limb movement that directly opposes the resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This is the foundational advantage of machines when compared to free-weights; an advantage that the vast majority of exercisers and fitness professionals are completely unaware of.
Arthur Jones says it best: “Since the "direction of movement" of the involved body-parts is constantly changing, the "direction of resistance" must change in exact accord, automatically, simultaneously, instantly; again, this requirement can only be provided by a rotary form of resistance.”