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My first car was a blue rust-bucket with a manual transmission. I can’t even tell you what the make of that car was. I’m pretty sure it was a No Name car brand. Completely generic and very basic. I could see the road from the holes on the bottom as I drove but I still loved it. It was my first car, after all, and it was also the car that taught me how to drive a stick. If you have never driven a stick, you have truly missed out. Driving stick is real driving. There is nothing like the feel and sound of a car as you shift from first to second to third and back down again. You are in complete control. Your driving reflects your mood. A bad day makes for jerky driving as you furiously shift the lever from gear to gear. On good days, driving is as smooth as Sunday morning. Your mind flows with the car. Pure nirvana. And learning how to get up a steep hill while driving shift . . . accomplishing that without stalling is worthy of a medal. 

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At some point, though, I had to buy a car with an automatic transmission. I was a mother of small children and I no longer had the luxury of just driving. I could no longer afford to have one hand on the wheel and one on the stick. I needed to have a free hand in case of baby-back-seat emergencies. Oh, how I mourned the loss. Suddenly, I was a passenger in my own car. I was passive. Being driven from place to place with the turn of a key and a push of a pedal. There was no connection between the machine and me. Boring.

I draw a parallel between this and the differences between free weights and machines. With free weights, you control the angle, the grip and the speed. Doing a rep on the weight bench, for example, requires all your concentration. Not just your chest but all your muscles are activated as you try to push the bar evenly up above your head. Your shoulder joints click, your triceps burn and your back expands as you push the bar away. You use accessory muscles in your arms, shoulders and back as you try to smoothly bring up the bar at just the right angle. And you repeat the process on the way back down. You control the bar every step of the way. 

Machines, though, are a different beast. In my current gym, there are machines that leave me baffled. I waste precious gym time trying to figure out how to use them – and for what purpose. How exactly do you contort your body to fit into that metal torture frame?  I climb in. Adjust the gears. Look at the depiction of how to use this thing and twist my head side to side trying to figure out if I’ve done it right. Reminds me of playing a one-person game of Twister. When I’m feeling especially creative, I strap myself into the machine and imagine I am part of an assembly line in some dystopic world. The machine latches onto my body and instead of it becoming me, I become part of it. The machine works me. Not the other way around. Disturbing. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve relied more on machines. As I work around one old injury or another, I have to depend on machines to help me push harder without getting hurt again. And I have learned to appreciate many of the metal monstrosities. The part of the gym where the machines reside appears like an imposing city. I roam around it getting into one machine. Then jump off to get into another. But all the while, I side-glance at the free weight area. I look longingly at its open spaces and the unencumbered weights. How I miss them!

It’s an uneasy position I have reached between machines and free weights. Right now, I might be married to the machines but they are just a rebound relationship. “Don’t be jealous”, I whisper to them, but they know the truth. Free weights (like that blue rust-bucket car) will always be my first love. 

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