Why do people sit while lifting weights? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?
Most will reply, “That’s the way I learned to do this exercise,” without taking into account that they may have learned a less efficacious method for achieving their goals.
An argument can be made that seated exercises work the target muscle “better.” That’s true to a degree. But is that your goal? Should it be your goal?
If your goal is strictly bodybuilding, then seated exercises are great. Bodybuilders care only about the muscles that show and care little about the “unsung” muscles that many bodybuilders have never even heard of
For example, did you know that low back pain is highly correlated with weakness of the lumbar multifidus and transverse abdominus muscles?
Did you also know that standing exercises can work these muscles effectively, yet the seated versions of the same exercises do not work these muscles at all?
It’s also important to note that, at least in healthy people without back pain, the transverse abdominus (TA) is the first muscle to fire with powerful movements of the arm or leg.
That means that if you are not working the TA, you are developing a faulty motor pattern, that is, your muscles are not working in the optimal order, with the optimal relative timing, or with the optimal relative forces that they need for coordinated, efficient movement.
If you are interested in improving performance and function outside of the weight room, seated exercises may predispose you to injury.
Seated exercises do a great job of working the target muscles, but do little to exercise the stabilizing muscles, especially the stabilizers of the core.
The muscles of the core dissipate gravitational forces, ground reaction forces and momentum. They are used minimally in most seated exercises because the machine helps to perform these functions for you.
It’s the stabilizers that you need to use concomitantly with the prime movers in the real world. As strength coach Charles Poliquin says, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” You cannot move your arms and legs efficiently without first establishing a solid foundation in the trunk.
A joint is simply where two bones meet. Those bones are kept in place by passive tension in ligaments and by active contraction of the muscles surrounding the joint. In order for the joint to move properly, stabilizers have to work with the prime movers to maintain an optimal relationship between the two bones.
If the stabilizers are not proportionately as strong as the prime movers - or if you have taught your prime movers to work without your stabilizers through overuse of traditional machines and other seated exercises - your joints cannot move naturally.
Joints that do not move naturally cause bones to meet at surfaces that are not designed to take as much stress; this can lead to arthritic changes in the joint.
Prime movers that are inordinately strong in relation to the stabilizers change the mechanics of the joints.
At the shoulder, for example, the rotator cuff muscles keep the humerus in the socket; the stabilizers of the shoulder girdle keep the socket in place on the rib cage; while the muscles of the abdominal region stabilize the ribcage with respect to the pelvis. In turn, the muscles of the hip stabilize the pelvis on the femur, et cetera — on down to your toes. Thus, standing exercises work muscles throughout the entire body.
As Dr. Mel Siff says in the book Supertraining:
It is not often appreciated that seated exercises always impose a greater load on the lumbar spinal discs than equivalent standing exercise.
Even without an added load, sitting with the back maintaining its neutral curvatures increases the lumbar disc pressure by about 40% (Chaffin & Anderson, 1984). If the back is allowed to flex forward, this stress can increase by as much as 90%.
The dangers are exacerbated by sitting, because one is unable to absorb any shock of loading by flexing the knees, hips or ankles, as it the case when standing.
In the vast majority of cases, … machines provide an inferior, incomplete and less efficient way of training the musculoskeletal system.
Besides leading to joint dysfunction, overuse of seated exercises lead to faulty motor programs. Seated exercises train the prime movers to work without the stabilizer muscles of the body. This pattern of movement can become a motor engram - a complex motor pattern that you follow habitually without thinking.
Your brain does not work in terms of muscles; it works in terms of movements. If you train your biceps on an arm curl machine, for example, your brain remembers that group of muscle contractions and generalizes it. That means that when you use your biceps in the real world, you will tend to use the same pattern that you used in the weight room, that is, not using stabilizing muscles of the trunk. This will lead to back injury when lifting a box or a bag of groceries because you have not trained your trunk how to work along with your biceps.
And as I tell the athletes I work with, if you sit down to lift weights, you’re only preparing yourself to do a lot of sitting – on the bench.
Standing exercises are simply more practical for the average person. When you have to lift something you usually stand up, you rarely sit down. When was the last time that you have to lift up something heavy - while sitting down? Conversely, when you have to pick something up, do you usually sit down first? No, you stand and use your trunk and legs along with your arms.
Do you want to work your abs? How about your inner and “outer” thighs? Simply spend more of your time performing standing exercises instead of passively sitting on a machine.
It makes no sense to do 45 minutes of seated exercises then take an "Abs Class" when you could have been working your abs the whole time you were in the weight room just by choosing the proper standing exercises.
Similarly, the inner and “outer” thigh (there really is no such muscle, though) work most often to stabilize the leg – not to move them to the side as in the commonly performed ab- and adduction exercises.
The abductors and adductors work together to “steer” the thigh and keep your knees in the safest position. You can effectively work this mechanism by performing standing exercises – especially when you perform them on one leg or with a weight shift.
- Chek, P., Scientific Back Training Correspondence Course. Encinitas: C.H.E.K Institute,1993.
- Chek, P., Advanced Program Design Correspondence Course. Encinitas: C.H.E.K. Institute, 1998.
- Cibrario, Stone. Functional Integrated Strength Training Video Series (F.I.S.T.), F.I.S.T. Inc., Northbrook Il. 1999.
- Clark, M., Neuromuscular Stabilization Training. M-F Publishing,
- Clark, M., Functional Strength Training, M-F Publishing,
- Lee, Diane. The Pelvic Girdle. 2nd ed. Churchill Livingstone, 1999.
- Porterfield, J. and Carl Derosa Mechanical Low Back Pain : Perspectives in Functional Anatomy 2nd ed., W B Saunders Co, 1998.
- Richardson, C. et al Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain, Churchill Livingstone, 1999.
- Schmidt, R.H. Motor Learning and Performance, Human Kinetics, 1991