At any big box commercial gym, you’ll see rows and rows of shiny, sometimes scary-looking weight machines. Whether cable-based or plate loaded, gyms invest thousands of dollars on this equipment. The newer ones will even count your reps and display your rest time between sets (I must admit, that’s pretty handy.) The truth is, many weight machines simply aren’t very effective for most people, and can even result in injury. In this article, I’ll explain why, and provide more effective alternatives to make the best use of your precious time.
So what’s wrong with using weight machines?
Reason #1: With most machines, you are seated or otherwise supported by the machine. As a result, when you are working a particular muscle group, your critical stabilizer and supporting muscles aren’t activated. For example, consider the bicep curl machine vs. performing bicep curls with dumbbells while standing. When sitting on the machine, you’re not engaging any other muscles. When standing, the muscles of your hips, low back, and abdominals are all engaged and working while you perform the curls.
Reason #2: Machines often lead to poor form. Because they must be designed to fit the largest of bodies, they often aren’t a good fit for smaller ones. Whether it’s arm reach, torso height or leg length, it’s extremely difficult to get into a truly correct position – and as a result, you end up using poor form to compensate. An example here would be a lat pulldown machine (the type with an adjustable seat and two handles). Because the handles are too wide for most people, especially women, the pulldown movement ends up focusing on the muscles of the shoulder and rotator cuff instead of the lats. A better choice would be a standing (again, activating the core stabilizers) lat pulldown using an adjustable cable machine, or a seated cable pulldown using a wide bar where you determine your own grip width.
Reason #3: Certain machines are almost always ineffective and often dangerous. The most ineffective machines are those intended to work the abdominals, such as the seated pullover crunch or the kneeling oblique twist. Because of their design and the amount of weight most people use with them, these machines often end up simply putting excess strain on the muscles of the low back and the lumbar spine. The single most dangerous weight machine, in my opinion, is the seated leg extension. It’s nearly impossible to position the body correctly on this machine, and it puts an incredible amount of strain on the knee joint, tendons and ligaments.
So what’s a better alternative?
You want to make the most of the time you spend working out, so the exercises you perform should be the most effective they can be. Here are some ways to get the most out of your exercise routine:
- Do as many exercises as possible in a standing position. Whether you use dumbbells, a barbell, stretch cords, a cable machine, a medicine ball, or any other tool, when you are standing up you are engaging your core. And who doesn’t want a stronger core?
- Perform multi-joint movements. Not only will you work multiple muscle groups in the same set, these movements will also probably elevate your heart rate for a bigger calorie burn. There are dozens of combinations to try – here are just a few: squat to overhead press with dumbbells or a weight plate; step up to balance on one foot with a single arm overhead press; or a deadlift plus a row with a barbell or dumbbells.
- Add an element of instability. Whenever you add instability to an exercise, your core – and often other muscle groups – must engage to keep you balanced. The best tools for creating instability are the Fitball (aka Swiss ball, or stability ball), the BOSU, the Step360, and just simply standing on one foot. Think of doing squats on the BOSU, pushups with feet on the Fitball, or bicep curls while balancing on one leg.
Is there ever a reason to use weight machines?
It’s important to clarify that “weight machines” do not include the various types of cable machines, which provide a myriad of options in standing or kneeling positions. These are wonderful tools and can often be used for an entire workout. Certain weight machines, which are designed for a specific muscle or muscle group on the other hand, can be beneficial for specific exercise goals.
- As a way to add variety to a workout, the leg press, standing calf raise, and assisted pull-up/dip machine are all good choices.
- The leg press is used by those seeking very high resistance, up into the hundreds of pounds. One friend of mine recently set a new personal best by performing six repetitions with 900 pounds on the leg press machine. Body builders and physique competitors often focus on the appearance of very specific muscles and will use weight machines to achieve their goals.
- Individuals with serious balance issues benefit from the stability that seated machines offer. When closely monitored by a fitness professional, weight machines provide a great way to help these people build muscle mass.
In my personal training practice, I help clients get the most out of their exercise time by incorporating lots of multi-joint movements, adding instability, and most importantly, creating a variety of workouts that continuously challenge the muscles in new and different ways. I teach my clients how to perform every exercise with perfect form so they stay injury-free while getting fitter and stronger with every session. So on your next trip to the gym, consider incorporating these moves into your workout instead of doing another circuit of weight machines. Better yet, find a great personal trainer to teach you how!
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) based in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She works with clients to help them live healthy and active lives and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.