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Resistance Cords vs. Weight Machine Resistance: Middle School Athlete Development

By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS

The middle school fitness/weight training space, as mentioned in previous blog posts, is either highly elaborate or next to nothing in regards to space, equipment, and functionality.  The importance of educating and practicing certain fundamental movements has been at the forefront of long-term athlete development (LTAD) discussions.  The safety issue with strength training at the adolescent level has been argued about for many years, mainly referencing growth issues associated with too much stress on bone growth plates.   With all of these aspects, educating our youth on proper movement and weight lifting mechanics is essential and important to overall development, and imperative for establishing a long-term healthy lifestyle.  In this particular group of youth athletes, specific questions often arise like, “how often?”, “how heavy should the weight be?”, or “how early can I start my son or daughter?” most often from coaches, physical education (PE) instructors and parents.  In this article, we will address portions of these questions and discuss methodologies to enhance overall youth development.

Along with the arguments on what, how, and when children should begin a strength program, the suggested methodology is also debated.  Questions concerning what types of resistance have hovered over the exercise science community as to what methods are best for the developing athlete – body weight only, resistance cords/bands, weight machines, suspension devices, or traditional free weights.  Another aspect that is underlying in all of these situations is enjoyment.  It is understood that everything in life is not always ‘FUN’ but when introducing young athletes to resistance training applications, their needs to be something initially that creates excitement in wanting to ‘get tired’, ‘feel a little burn in the muscle’, or ‘wake up sore the next morning’.  Coaches and PE instructors are not preparing elite level athletes for competition, they are providing and establishing fundamental guidelines for LTAD, and this should include some FUN!

The main discussion of this post is comparing two methodologies common in the middle school strength and conditioning environment – weight machine resistance training practices and resistance cord applications – and how these play a role in LTAD.  See the excerpt below on the ‘PRO’s’ of resistance cord devices as a versatile, multi-use tool for young athlete training and development:

“Utilizing resistance devices like cords or bands offer multi-directional movement variations that do not occur in a selectorized weight machine, and they are noticeably less expensive.  Variable resistance cords allow kids to understand the various movement patterns involved in both life and athletics.  We never push, pull or lift an object the same way every time….we push high or low, we pull at various angles, we press overhead, we lift objects from very low depths, and we do multiple tasks with one arm or one leg.  All of these variations can be performed with resistance cords at different resistances, angles, positions, and speeds.  Speed is another interesting component of using resistance cords in the middle school setting.  By timing the drill, kids are forced to move the cord/band at higher intensities.  This promotes body awareness, enhances body control, and increases metabolic rate, i.e., the kid’s breathe heavier, their heart rate increases, and they might start sweating!!  Loading and intensities can be manipulated easily, safely and consistently, so no two days are the same.  This versatility goes a long way in keeping classes and practices fun, promoting physical activity, and educating kids on the many ways to perform one movement.  This gives them the freedom and knowledge as adults to perform these movements effectively and not solely in a machine.”

The safety issue for adolescent athlete strength and conditioning has caused most coaches and PE instructors, even parents, to gravitate towards machine-based applications.  But, a few ‘CON’s’ should be considered when these discussions occur:

  • Expense
  • Decreased balance and body mechanics
  • Limited versatility

Although weight machines have evolved since the first ‘Universal Multi-Station Weight Machine’, one fact has not changed….the cost!  Weight machines do provide a singular unit that encompasses a substantial amount of contained weight for performing modified compound movements for the chest, back, arms, shoulders and legs.  The movement patterns on the machine associated with each muscle or muscle group have improved, as well as the ‘smoothness’ by which each machine operates, and the footprint they take up has been decreased.  These aspects, along with aesthetics, have led to astronomically high prices for these machines.  In addition, each muscle or muscle group needs its own separate unit, which increases the price based on how many muscles you want to stimulate (jokingly, we want to stimulate ALL of the muscles of the human body, not just 1 or 2!).  This leads to enormous amounts of money that need to be spent at the middle school level, which traditionally does not have that type of budget for this type of purchase.  Also, this leads into our next two ‘CON’s’ in that machine-based strength and conditioning spaces hinder young athlete balance and body mechanics, and this type of set-up lacks the versatility and diversity that is needed for optimum youth development.

Bodyweight and variable resistance applications promote a high level of balance and proprioception, which is of supreme importance for young athlete development.  The ability to understand ‘where the body is in regards to space’, and the ability to correct and adjust to these instabilities is monumental in establishing a foundation for body control.  Loading at various angles and positions that cannot be done using machine-based exercises or are limited to one angle/position, enhances balance and proprioceptive characteristics.  Fundamental movements like push-ups or squats allow positional balance while adjusting to changing elevations during the movement.  Adding a variable load to these movements, i.e., resistance cords, provides a progressive stimulus to challenge (correct and adjust) the environment.  These learning characteristics are negatively supported through the use of the weight machines.  This reduces the firing capacity of the balance/proprioceptive receptors within the body thus diminishing the control needed in life, sports, and other physical activities.

Learning fundamental movement patterns establishes a foundation for athletic movement later in life.  Machine-based exercises limit the versatility and range of motion of most traditional movements, with the exercise typically initiated at the most vulnerable point of the movement.  For example, the chest press machine movement is started with the elbows bent, not in an extended position which would occur when we were pushing something in sports or during life tasks.  Another example would be the leg press machine, which initiates the movement with the knees in a deep flexed position.  Machines, although considered safe because of the lack of ‘freedom’ associated with free weight methods, actually put undue stress on specific joints at biomechanically inefficient positions during the movement.

The versatility of bodyweight or variable resistance devices has been expressed above but also has to do with our “FUN” factor we talked about earlier.  By having an open space for movement applications using bodyweight, resistance cords, medicine balls, or other devices, coaches are able to diversify young athlete training sessions.  The monotony of using a single weight training machine, typically 3 days/times per week, not only establishes bad muscle mechanical habits, but it is also boring!  Using various loading angles and positions, similar to what was discussed in regards to balance and proprioception, is fun and allows for a holistic adaptation to numerous muscle functions.  Progressions are easier and more enjoyable because they don’t strictly rely on weight increases.  They now can be progressed via repetitions, time, resistance, and accuracy.

As mentioned before in a previous post, “…the landscape of machine-based strength training at the middle school level is changing, and changing for the betterment of our youth.  As kids have become adults, their reliance on machines to improve fitness has diminished with more emphasis on movement, resistance applications using cords and free weights, and aerobic conditioning through short-burst, high intensity efforts with short recovery.”  The traditional weight machine with its high expense and limited versatility, is not conducive to LTAD and should be considered a ‘last resort’ when discussing optimal strength and conditioning practices and room layouts at the middle school level.

References:

Barreiro, J.A., and Howard, R. (2017).  Incorporating Unstructured Free Play into Organized Sports.  Strength and Cond Journal, 39(2): 11-19.

McKenzie, T. L., Marshall, S. J., Sallis, J. F., & Conway, T. L. (2000). Student activity levels, lesson context, and teacher behavior during middle school physical education. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 71(3), 249-259.

Thompson, B.J., Stock, M.S., Mota, J.A., Drusch, A.S., DeFranco, R.N., Cook, T.R., & Hamm, M.A. (2017). Adaptations associated with an after-school strength and conditioning program in middle-school-aged boys:  A quasi-experimental design.  Journal of Strength and Cond Research, 31(10): 2840-2851.

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