Traditional weight machines, which lock your body in place and work your muscles in isolation as you do, say, a chest press, aren't functional because muscles don't normally operate in isolation.
Functional training, by contrast, is functional because you do it in instability; as you do that chest press, your core works overtime to balance your body and a host of surrounding muscles strain to support your prime movers in multi-joint movements. Some functional zealots won't touch a weight-stack at all in favor of flipping oversized tractor tires, but those still in the gym are gravitating to free weights, body-weight exercises and machines with omni-directional cables, like the home gyms reviewed here.
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-- Roy M. Wallack
Shake up workout
Hoist V Core: Single-station, weight-stack gym with multi-position cable outrigger arms and a unique "core" seat that can be made unstable, forcing you to work harder.
Likes: The wacky seat works; when you unlock it and move your feet from the ground to the platform at the base of the seat, it simulates sitting on an unstable exercise ball. Doing functional cable exercises from a shaky base is fun and challenging. I found myself almost instantly creating new exercises, like standing rows from the base. It was like lifting weight on a skim board. If you tire of the games or the hard work, just lock the seat. The adjustable back pad can be pushed away for advanced functional exercises.
Dislikes: No traditional seated leg extension, although functional purists would argue that such an exercise never occurs in real life. Weight stack is only 150 pounds (which is fine with more-difficult functional exercises, some say); additional 50 pounds is optional.
Price: $3,499. (800) 548-5438; www.hoistfitness.com.
Take it for a spin
Tuff Stuff Six-Pack Trainer: All-cable functional machine with three (high, medium, low) handle positions that includes a unique seat/bench that rotates 360 degrees, allowing more exercise options in a compact area.
Likes: Unlike the market's many seatless functional trainers, this one allows the option of a partially supported position for many exercises. The seat's ability to fold flat and rotate lets you do chest, core and rows without sitting on the ground. You can also move to the side and work entirely unsupported. To help you practice functional exercises, an illustrated list is affixed to the weight shroud.
Dislikes: No seated leg-extension exercise is possible. Also, since the seat can't be removed, it actually can get in the way of some functional movements. 150-pound weight stack, with 200 optional.
Price: $2,499. (909) 629-1600; tuffstuff.net.
BodyCraft GX: Half-breed that adds multi-position functional cable outrigger arms to a traditional fixed-path gym.
Likes: Nice variety. The option of doing both functional and fixed-path movements enhances your workout. Adjustable seat and seat back allow standard range of presses and mid-row. Low pulley with foot-plate allows for low rows and leg exercises. You also get a traditional seated leg extension (but not a seated hamstring curl). The GX is a good deal, as the price is low compared with similar hybrids.
Dislikes: 150-pound stack is definitely low for traditional presses; 200 pounds optional.
Price: $2,199. (800) 990-5556; bodycraft.com.
Functional starter kit
Horizon FS-50: Functional hybrid trainer with adjustable cable outrigger arms and traditional leg-extension unit and lat-pull-down.
Likes: Provides much of the variety of functional training at a fraction of name-brand prices. A nice bonus: The seat is removable, so you can perform standing floor exercises or roll in a fitness ball for unstable seated movements.
Dislikes: Less solid-feeling than the big brands. 150-pound stack is light, with no upgrade option. Only one cable at the bottom rather than a more-functional pair.
Price: $1,099. (800) 244-4192; www.horizonfitness.com.
Wallack is the author of "Run for Life" and the co-author of "Bike for Life." firstname.lastname@example.org