Rube Goldberg Machines: Do They Have A Place In The Gym

“Why the hell would you do that?”

That was the first thought that I had when I heard about “Rube Goldberg Machines,” the elaboratly designed contraptions that accomplish simple tasks.  Trying to tell a 5th grader that you need 15 steps to close the blinds did not appeal to my analytical brain.  In time I learned to appreciate the art and complexity of them, and have grown to adore his inspired designs.  The New York Times recently discussed his work:

Gadgets and gizmos are enchanting to me; I love learning about their inner workings.  In many ways, it’s why I love learning about the human body; how do we work?  Figuring them out fascinates me, but in many ways, knowing how to work something is different from learning what makes it work.

When you go to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store, you don’t want to know about the design, construction, or hardware in your iPad.  You want to use the software to the best of your abilities so that you can fully enjoy it is capable of.

That’s exercise.

Very few folks are concerned about what’s going on inside their body and more concerned about using their body.  Important aspects of exercise physiology such as VO2 Max and Momentary Muscular Failure are important for researchers and professors, but speaking the language of physiology does nothing when the language that most gym goers speaks is that of psychology.

Trainers, when was the last time saw “I want to increase my VO2 max?” on your surveys or information request?  Trainees, when was the last time you wrote that?


The vast majority of us don’t need the best exercise program; we need one that is better for where we are starting from.  The most advanced program in the world is worthless compared to a ‘bad’ program that somebody is actually using.

The most respected programs in the world focus on moving beautifully and becoming strong at basic exercises.  They include deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, push-ups, military presses, rows, carries:  Exercises that don’t require very much equipment, but demand that you engage in proper movement and follow the rule of Progressive Overload.  Several sets of each of those exercises, done with challenging loads, can be the best workout in the world when done regularly.


My “Keep It Simple Stupid” opinion changes for more advanced trainees and in-person coaching.  When you’re enrolled in a distance coaching program or regularly working with a professional, things can get fancy.  There is an expert eye to observe and coach movement, make tweaks as necessary, and prepare follow-up programs. This allows for exercise modification or replacement when necessary, but it’s important to note the difference between when necessary and when possible.

Rapidly cycling unrelated exercises is often attributed to P90X’s ignorant idea of “muscle confusion,” which has bastardized the concept of movement variability.  The result to is the masturbatory delusion that we make progress so fast that we must constantly use new exercises.

Your muscles do not need to be confused. Sitting on your ass for 12+ hours per day is all of the confusion necessary. Your muscles need to work.  If you’re constantly learning new exercises, you’re seeing neural changes; your brain gets better at controlling movements.  That quick improvement isn’t necessarily your muscles doing more work, just working more efficiently.  Is perceived progress real progress?


I am an avid fan of variety in movement to allow for improvements in proprioception and kinestetic awareness.  If you’re only squatting up and down, we’re missing out on valuable movement experiences that our body needs.  Something as varied and diverse as this movement practice emphasizes mindfullness of movement:

The closest that most of us will see to this is a yoga practice, guided by an instructor.  We infrequently see dedicated movement practice, but our sedentary society needs more of it.  8 hours of sitting in a desk chair followed by 30 minutes of sitting on an exercise bike may be better than 30 minutes on the couch, but we don’t need to sit more; we need to move more.  The health and fitness community as a whole has made the mistake of discussing the importance of exercise in physical benefit:

We need to train 3-5 times per week, include strategies to reinforce or develop range of motion, muscular strength, and cardiorespitory fitness.  This isn’t very new, and is talked about in every exercise physiology course, personal training consultation, and is the gist of every exercise program in the history of the human species.  Contrarians aside, few would disagree with the importance of this, but It is clearly not working.

Rather than focus on a reductionist clinical approach to exercise, we must better give people the feelings that they want in gym; comfort when they begin, an attainable challenge, and increasingly difficult challenges.  This doesn’t happen when you’re talking about sarcomeres or the diaphragm before you start.  Stop talking about how cool the diaphragm is as an asymmetrical parachute, and at least relate it to the 2nd greatest day of elementary P.E.:


Our bones and muscles don’t need much variety; they need to slowly do more work so they can become stronger and impact our body composition.  Our brain on the other hand, craves variety.  We want to experience new movement patterns, continually learn new things, to keep us engaged to our movement.

Exercise programs can vary greatly in their complexity and effectiveness, but that isn’t a direct correlation. When designing exercise programs for yourself or clients, it’s of the utmost importance to find balance between what they want to do, what they’re capable of, and what is in their best interest.  Complexity is largely determined by where they are in their fitness Journey.  If we’re not focusing on this, we’re contributing to the problem.

If you DO like Rube Goldberg inspired contraptions, check out what may be the greatest Lego machine ever made:

2 Replies to “Rube Goldberg Machines: Do They Have A Place In The Gym”

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