While you don’t need to use weight machines, there’s nothing wrong with including them in your workout. Machines can help you learn how to "activate" muscles you can't feel with barbells or dumbells. They are also an effective way to exercise when you're coming back after an injury, and they are an excellent way to add volume and overload your muscles while reducing the risk of injury when fatigued.
It’s rare that you’ll see trainers and coaches will recommend anything other than bodyweight, barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell exercises before they suggest jumping on a machine.
That’s because specific movements -- like squatting and hinging (the act of pushing your hips back, as you would during a deadlift) -- are easier to master when you can learn them without being forced into a fixed pattern (as is the case with most machines). That’s always been the knock on machines: they are dangerous because they don’t allow your body the freedom to move.
But, sometimes, that freedom is part of the problem. Weaknesses, instabilities, past injuries or just being unfamiliar with an exercise can result in you doing an exercise incorrectly and not seeing results, or -- even worse -- getting hurt in the process.
No one will argue that the dozens of variations of squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses shouldn’t eventually be a part of your program. And you can exercise the rest of your life without using machines and have no problems. But, avoiding machines as if they are a danger or inferior isn’t accurate, and could be a mistake, depending on your goals, experience, and training schedule.
Exercise machines have benefits that are difficult to experience with barbells and dumbbells, and they are a good alternative and offer a level of comfort to a spotter-less workout. If you avoid all machines for no reason, there's a good chance you're ignoring equipment that could help you see the results you want.
Are Machines Bad?
Many trainers will look down on machines because they only compare them to non-machine versions, instead of considering all of the potential benefits. Not to mention, as much as it might be trendy to hate on machines, science paints a much different picture. You might see the difference between a machine and a dumbbell, but that doesn’t mean your muscles care.
Just think about all of the times you did an exercise, and -- instead of feeling your muscles work -- it just seemed like you were going through the motion. You would eventually feel exhausted, but it didn't quite feel like you were working your muscles as hard as you could. This phenomenon is known as tension, and it's a key part of building muscle and training for fat loss.
Once you learn how to create tension, the idea of activation is like a riding a bike: you’ll never forget how to do it. So using machines can be a great way to get all of those difficult-to-activate-muscles, whether that’s your legs, butt, or shoulders, to fire correctly, and then you can carry that over to every exercise.
In other words, machines can be the perfect jumpstart your workout if you’re not seeing results.
As an added benefit, sometimes machines can be a safer alternative than barbells and dumbbells. For example, if you are performing any exercise and one muscle is ready to give out, you can easily call it quits without risking injury or harm.
If you want to make sure you’re getting the most of your effort in the gym -- and you want to add some machines -- these are a few good options to add new life (and results) to your workouts.
Lower Body Machines
Option 1: Leg Presses
Leg presses are a great machine alternative as your primary lower body exercise. They are beneficial for anyone with back or knee injuries who have trouble with squats. It's the perfect way to do a higher volume of reps and sets.
Option 2: Leg Extensions
This machine is great at isolating the muscles on the front side of your leg (your quads). Leg extensions are not a "primary" move, but they are a great way to finish your workout or follow up after a heavy set of squats or deadlifts.
Option 3: Leg Curl
Squats and deadlifts are great, but they don’t cover everything. Leg curls help work a section of your hamstrings that can be hard to target with free-weight exercises. On this movement, focus on squeezing your hamstrings at the "top" of the movement, and then stretching them at the bottom.
Upper Body Machines
Option 1: Cable Chest Press
This exercise helps anyone who wants to strengthen their chest through a full range of motion. With the machine, you can maximize tension at the top of the movement, which is typically difficult to do when using free weights.
Even though most chest press exercises are done lying down, it might be best to do it when seated. In the standing variation of this exercise, the limiting factor is the muscles of the torso, not the chest, according to research out of the Institute of Human Performance.
Option 2: Assisted Pullups
Pullups are great, but the assisted version gets a bad reputation. They still work all of the muscle in your back, shoulders, and biceps through a compound movement (the pullup), and it’s especially helpful when you can’t perform the prescribed number of reps with your full body weight. Whether you want to build up to your first full pullup or want to be able to do more reps of the pullup, this is a great option.
When performing the movement, make sure your torso forms a straight line, meaning that your knees or feet (depending on equipment model) should not be in front of your hands.
Option 3: Pec Dec
One of the main actions of the pecs is humeral adduction or bringing your upper arm in toward the chest. That’s a movement pattern that’s minimally involved in bench presses, especially barbell ones, Gentilcore says. To get the most out of the exercise, squeeze your chest as hard as possible at the end of each rep. That’s where you’ll gain the most benefit, and what most people forget. If you want a great combination, do 3-5 reps on the bench press and follow with 10-15 reps on the pec dec, says Gentilcore.
Option 4: Seated Cable Row
“This is one of my favorite back exercises bar none—free weights or not,” says Gentilcore. Working the muscles in your back is very important, but many row variations -- especially when in the bent-over position -- can cause some stress on your spine, Gentilcore adds. So this seated variation provides a little more protection, and it allows you to move heavier weights to help improve strength or size.
If you want to master the movement, “The key here is to use a full range of motion,” Gentilcore says. Here’s where it goes wrong. Most of the time when you row, the cue is to retract or squeeze your shoulder blades together, which is fine. But when you straighten out your arms, it’s common to keep your shoulder blades ‘glued’ together. Locking your shoulders is not as good as it can lead to injury and lousy shoulder movement. Instead, think about your shoulder blades moving around your rib cage during rowing movements.
Option 5: Triceps Rope Pressdowns
Start the exercise at the top with a slight isometric contraction, perform the movement at a controlled pace, and then squeeze as hard as you can at the bottom, he says. As you return to the top, hold the contraction, making sure not to relax the triceps. “I like these because I'm able to squeeze the triceps at the bottom of each rep and feel the muscle fire,” Gentilcore says. Perform these at the end of an upper-body or full-body workout.
Abs and Core Machines
Option 1: Seated Ab Crunch
Your abs are made up of many different muscles, but your “six-pack” muscle (the rectus abdominus) is what you want to work if see those muscles come to life. Seated ab crunches will do the trick and allow you to add resistance in a way that is very difficult with traditional bodyweight movements. If you have a healthy lower back, this is an excellent option for lower-rep work. So try to use heavier weights, focus on 6-12 reps, and stay away from the higher-rep work (leaving it for other options).
Option 2: The Pallof Press
This exercise delivers results for many reasons, but maybe, most importantly, it challenges many conventional approaches to abs training. For one, it doesn’t look like your typical abs exercise, which is part of the reason why it’s so effective. Rather than saving for the end, you can perform it at the beginning of your workout as part of an extended warm-up to help "prime" your nervous system. And, you can even make these a part of a rehab program or light workout days, while still seeing a lot of benefits.
The Pallof Press forces stability and strength throughout your entire core, without a real risk of injuring your back. The creator of the movement, John Pallof, a Boston-based physical therapist, suggests using “a narrow base of support with your feet under your hips, no wider.”
“You want your muscles stabilizing, not your base of support.” He adds that your hands should be about chest height. Set the resistance cable so that it forms as straight of a line as possible with your hands. And then straighten your arms fully and hold for 2-3 seconds, recommends Gentilcore.