Even the most experienced gym goers occasionally find themselves peeking at a new machine out of the corner of their eye. They are wondering what hidden muscle the new contraption could be aimed at, before casually stretching against it for a closer look.
Many people frown at machines, writing them off as extravagant and unnecessary things that “Can’t beat the good old free weights.” For some machines, this is true. There seem to be machines for every possible exercise you can perform in the gym. Some of these are not just unnecessary, they actually force the body into unnatural movements, and should be avoided. But that’s for another day. What is important is that you listen to your body and remember everyone is different. If a machine doesn’t feel right to you, don’t use it.
That said, there are some excellent workout machines in the gym that do a better job hitting target muscles than the sacred free weights. Many of these machines have been around for years.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some mind-bending science lesson filled with equations and homework. The science behind the effectiveness of many workout machines is a very simple concept, one you all know of and experience every day. One word…
Yes, gravity, the very force that you fight against every time you perform any lift in the gym.
But gravity is a constant, right?
How can workout machines improve upon gravity?
The answer is simple. Machines provide a constant pressure, a constant load throughout a movement. Take the old gym standard, the barbell bicep curl, for example. When you begin to lift the barbell, gravity is having very little effect on the movement. When your forearms become parallel to the ground, peak gravitational pressure is being applied to the biceps. Most importantly, when you reach peak contraction, gravity is pushing down through the bones of your forearm and exerting very little pressure on the muscles you are trying to work. Now imagine performing the same bicep curl with a machine attached to a weight stack.
Wherever you are in the movement, the force you are curling against is constant because the weight you lift is moving up and down against gravity. This means that at peak contraction, your muscles are still fighting with the full weight of the lift and are not resting as they would be with a barbell. That means you’ll get a greater effective range of motion, greater pumps, and more effectively fatigued biceps.
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As previously mentioned, not all machines beat the effectiveness of free weights for a given movement. The most effective workout machines are the ones that add an element of constant pressure to a lift that has weak points (as in the example above). Or, they can also add stability and focus to an exercise. With this in mind, it can be said that pressing machines are amongst the most unnecessary machines in the gym as they add no gravitational advantage to an already very stable exercise. What they do give, however, is a decreased risk of reinjury for those recovering from ailments. They also allow you to lift heavier weights without a spotter.
So, in no particular order, here is a list of the top six workout machines that give an advantage over their free weight counterparts:
Ok, so this list is in no particular order, but perhaps this one is at number one for a reason. The cable station referred to here is the double type, or crossover machine, as pictured above, and is one of the most versatile equipment options in the gym, second only to the dumbbell.
Whatever exercise you perform at the cable station, you get smooth, even force throughout the movement. With the amount of handles and possibilities, you can do most lifts.
Some of the most effective exercises to perform at the cable station are:
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Pec-deck flys, or machine flys, have two advantages over their dumbbell equivalent:
The reverse pec-deck has nothing to do with the pecs. It is a machine for training the rear delts. This is getting repetitive now, but the advantage over bent dumbbell laterals is the tension throughout the exercise, particularly at the bottom of the lift, where you might swing the dumbbell. Using this workout machine, you tense the rear delts. The reverse pec-deck also gives a great workout to the rhomboids and traps.
While squats are held as the king of all round leg mass, the leg press is arguably the king of quadricep training. Never mind all of those fancy unilateral machines, the one you want is the standard 45-degree single sled, shown in the diagram below.
The advantage the leg press has over the squat for quad training is it eliminates the stability element. When squatting, much energy is exerted to remain upright and control the weight. This is great for strengthening the core for power transfer, but the leg press allows a much larger weight to be concentrated primarily onto the quads. Both squats and leg presses should be employed for a great leg workout.
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The pullover machine is the best way to work the large lat muscles through their full range of motion, with constant tension. It is an excellent way to warm up and burn out the lats. At the top of the movement, the lats are fully stretched, with the arms raised above the head. Using the mind-muscle connection, you can then pull your elbows down and behind you for maximum lat contraction. Always arch your upper back when performing lat exercises to fully squeeze the muscles.
The Preacher machine is also designed to place constant tension on the working muscle. Standard Preacher curls have a dead zone at the top, where gravity has less and less effect until your forearm becomes perpendicular to the floor, and tension is zero. This workout machine eliminates that, so you can build bigger, thicker guns. Simple.
Other notable mentions include the calf raise machine (both seated and standing), leg curl machines of all varieties, and specific side lateral workout machines for building super rounded delts.
If you haven’t tried some of the machines or the exercises mentioned above, start throwing them into your workouts and feel the difference. The best workouts should utilize both free weights and machines.
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Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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