The weight room is filled with bastardized equipment — but it’s time for the shunned machines and exercises to make a comeback. Like an Exacto knife tossed in the garbage because it couldn’t cut down a tree as well as a chainsaw, weight machines like the leg press and pec dec have been hammered by the media for their inability to do things they were never designed to do in the first place.
“They’re not as good as deadlifts or presses,” the articles say. But those stories fail to consider the question: Good at what?
Look, no great strength coach will argue the fact that the big, compound, multi-joint lifts are the foundation of any complete strength-building program. Deadlifts, squats and military presses are the undisputed kings of working a wide array of musculature at once, improving kinesthetic awareness, and burning calories like a blowtorch.
Exercise machines excel at much of the precision work that barbells and dumbbells can miss.
But the rest of the equipment you’ll find at the gym serve a different purpose. Weight machines excel at much of the precision work that barbells and dumbbells can miss. And if you avoid all of them, there’s a good chance you’re ignoring equipment that could help you see the results you want.
Why “Stay Away From All Weight Machines” is Bad Advice
“I must admit I used to be the snobby ‘free weights are king and you’re an idiot if you use machines’ guy back in the day,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S. owner of CORE, a small-group training facility in Boston. “However I’d be remiss not to offer plenty of anecdotal evidence of pretty freaky athletes who use machines on a daily basis in their training. And on the aesthetic side of things, every elite bodybuilder in history has utilized machines as part of his or her training.”
You don’t have to go only on anecdotal evidence, though. A review in the Strength and Conditioning Journal concluded that, when added to a comprehensive strength program that includes multi-joint lifts, isolation exercises such as those performed with weight machines can increase strength and improve sports performance beyond what could be achieved through compound movements alone.
Why might isolating a muscle be helpful? First of all, it teaches lifters how to properly activate and “feel” a muscle—a skill that’s essential to getting the most out of exercise, whether you’re performing other single-joint, machine-based movements or compound, free-weight lifts, explains Nick Clayton, M.S., C.S.C.S, C.P.T., personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Another great use is for overcoming (or just trying to prevent) injuries. “You can work around injuries with machines because they can isolate some muscle groups more completely than can free weights,” says Michael Israetel, Ph.D., assistant professor of instruction in kinesiology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
For example, if you have a shoulder injury, pullups might be out of the question. But machine rows and bicep curls? You can probably still do those. The same thinking applies when you want to strengthen specific trouble spots like the glutes. When your glutes are weaker than your quads—a common issue—it can contribute to IT band and other knee issues.
Weight machines can also help you put on serious size. “When it comes to mechanical tension—one of the main triggers of muscular growth—it can be argued that machines are superior,” Gentilcore says.
Again the reason is isolation. Only the muscle you want to build is going to handle, and thereby adapt to, the load. And since you no longer have to be concerned with stability, you are able to lift more weight, creating more tension and contributing to an increase in size. In one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study of trained males, lifters’ 1RMs (the most weight they could possibly move for one rep) were significantly heavier when using machines as opposed to free weights.
Being able to isolate a muscle is especially helpful when you are trying to work that muscle to failure. For example, if you were performing squats, your back might cry “uncle” before your glutes are ready to call it quits. By doing isolation work on your glutes before or after you head to the squat rack, you can make sure you leave the gym with your glutes completely tapped.
Clayton adds that machines are great when you want to do drop sets (or “strip sets” as Arnold calls them), which require you to perform reps until failure, rest, go down in weight, and work until failure again, repeating that pattern for multiple sets. Drop sets are awesome for promoting strength and muscle gains but can easily result in poor form when performed with free weights.
Interested in bringing machine work into your lifting routine, but not sure where to start? Here’s your guide to getting the most from your gym’s most-underused weight machines.
The Exercise Machine: Leg Extension
What it’s good for: Isolating the quadriceps, the four big muscles on the front side of your thighs.
Who should use it: Bodybuilders trying to put size on their upper legs, or for accessory work after your “big” lifts (like squats and deadlifts).
Form pointers: Before you start, adjust the machine so that your knees are in line with the machine’s axis. Perform extensions in one of two ways: 1) using a light weight while moving at a slow speed, or 2) using a heavy weight at a fast speed. Research from the University of Illinois shows that knee injuries on this machine are more apt to occur when you perform this move at medium speeds with moderate weights. If you do all of that and still feel the exercise in your knee joint, not just the musculature surrounding it, then stop, advises Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
Work it into your workout: Perform sets of leg extensions following your squat set to work the quads to their full potential, Clayton suggests.
The Exercise Machine: Leg Press
What it’s good for: Training your legs without recruiting your back or requiring a lot of stability.
Who should use it: Bodybuilders or anyone trying to work their legs at a high volume, Israetel says. The move also can be beneficial for anyone with back or knee injuries who have trouble with squats.
Form pointers: Use a variety of widths and foot stances (narrow, wide, staggered) to mix up the muscles recruited, Gentilcore recommends.
Work it into your workout: “For most people, doing leg presses after squats is the best idea so that you can still benefit from heavy squats and get enough volume,” Israetel says.
The Exercise Machine: Leg Curl
What it’s good for: Working a section of the hamstrings that is not heavily recruited in free-weight exercises like squats and deadlifts.
Who should use it: Lifters who want to build strength or size in the hamstrings, or athletes out to improve their explosive lower-body power.
Form pointers: The focus should be on moving quickly through the concentric phase (where you “squeeze” or contract the muscle) and slowly through the eccentric or lengthening phase, says San Diego-based exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S. “It’s tough, but effective.”
Work it into your workout: “Do Romanian deadlifts then hop right to the leg curl to work the hamstrings to fatigue and promote growth and definition,” McCall says.
The Exercise Machine: Calf Raise
What it’s good for: Working your calves with more weight than you can with free weights. While grip strength tends to limit the load you can use with free-weight calf raises, that doesn’t factor in here.
Who should use it: Everyone, since most people likely aren’t doing anything to hit the calves. The exercise is also useful for combatting plantar fasciitis.
Form pointers: Do not bounce. Make sure to lower the weight under control.
Work it into your workout: Perform both seated and standing variations to fully work both the gastrocnemius and soleus, the two muscles that make up the calves.
The Exercise Machine: Cable Chest Press
What it’s good for: Increasing strength near the top of the movement, where the tension is lower when you use free weights, according to Nelson.
Who should use it: Anyone who wants to strengthen their chest through a full range of motion—a valuable trait for anyone whose sport requires pushing, such as blocking in football.
Form pointers: To really tap out your chest, perform this move 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.
Work it into your workout: Perform it in tandem with free weight bench presses for maximal benefits. You can schedule both lifts on the same or different days.
The Exercise Machine: Pec Dec
What it’s good for: One of the main actions of the pecs is humeral adduction, or bringing the upper arm in toward the chest. That’s a movement pattern that’s minimally involved in bench presses, especially barbell ones, Gentilcore says.
Who should use it: “Anyone who wants to cut diamonds with their pecs,” Gentilcore says.
Form pointers: Perform a hard squeeze with your chest at the end of each rep for maximal contraction.
Work it into your workout: “A sneaky trick is to superset these with bench press,” Gentilcore says. “So, perform a heavy-ish set of three to five reps of the bench press then follow with a set of 10 to 15 pec dec flies.”
The Exercise Machine: Tricep Rope Pressdown
What it’s good for: “I like these because I’m able to really squeeze the triceps at the bottom of each rep and feel the muscle fire,” Gentilcore says.
Who should use it: “Everyone, because they’re (the machine) the shit,” he says.
Form pointers: 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.
Work it into your workout: Perform these at the end of an upper-body day for a nice triceps pump.
The Exercise Machine: Assisted Pullup
What it’s good for: Working the back, shoulders, and biceps through a compound movement (the pullup) when you can’t perform the prescribed number of reps with your full body weight.
Who should use it: People trying to build up to their first full pullup, or those wanting to perform a higher volume through increased reps, Israetel says.
Form pointers: Make sure that your torso forms a straight line. Your knees or feet (depending on equipment model) should not be in front of your hands.
Work it into your workout: Integrate into an upper body or pulling day to work up to the unassisted variation.
The Exercise Machine: Seated Cable Row
What it’s good for: Developing the lats (and improving shoulder function) without placing as much stress on the spine as in bent-over rows with free weights, Gentilcore says. You can also move heavier loads through this seated variation to really up strength and size gains.
Who should use it: “This is one of my favorite back exercises bar none—free weights or not,” he says. “Everyone should use it.”
Form pointers: “The key here is to use a full range of motion,” Gentilcore says. “Many trainees make the mistake of retracting or squeezing their shoulder blades together on these on the concentric action, which is fine, but on the eccentric straightening out the arms, they keep the shoulder blades ‘glued’ together. I don’t like this for many reasons, but the main one is that it can lead to faulty scapular mechanics. I like to cue people to think about the shoulder blades moving around the rib cage during rowing movements. To that end, with the seated cable row, you can really emphasize a nice stretch at the end of each repetition which is a great mechanism of muscle growth.”
Work it into your workout: “Use as an accessory movement on deadlift day to really fry the upper back,” he says.
The Exercise Machine: Seated Ab Crunch
What it’s good for: It can hit your rectus abdominis (a.k.a the “six pack” muscle) with heavy resistance like few bodyweight movements can, Israetel says.
Who should use it: Anyone with a healthy lower back who’s looking to develop a chiseled core.
Form pointers: “Use heavy weights for six to 12 reps per set with a full range of motion,” Israetel says. “Don’t do super-high reps here.”
Work it into your workout: “Alternate it every couple of mesocycles [anywhere from a few weeks to months] with other moves that you already do for abs,” he says.
The Exercise Machine: Pallof Press
What it’s good for: Improving stability throughout the entire core.
Who should use it: Anyone who wants a stronger core, or is bored of planks and looking for variety.
Form pointers: “Use a narrow base of support with your feet under your hips, no wider,” says John Pallof, the Boston-based physical therapist credited with inventing the exercise. “You want your muscles stabilizing, not your base of support.” He adds that your hands should be held at about chest height. Set the resistance cable so that it forms as straight of a line as possible with your hands.
“Be sure to straighten your arms fully and pause for two to three seconds at end of each rep,” Gentilcore adds.
Work it into your workout: Perform at the beginning of your workout as part of an extended warm up to help “prime” the nervous system. “Plus, performing these in a less fatigued state makes them more effective for some people, particularly those coming off injury who need to focus on more quality reps,” Gentilcore says.
If you are using the move as part of your rehab process, Pallof advises that you use only light to moderate resistance because the core muscles that this move targets are “low-threshold muscles,” meaning a little bit of work stimulates them but with too much your body will compensate by drawing in other, bigger muscles.
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