Trainers these days love to bash machines for not being “functional.” Leg presses, machine curls, lat pulldowns, standing calf raises, the Smith machine… pretty much all of them deemed worthless by a growing segment of the fitness industry.
You know what I think of that? I think it’s ridiculous. (And that’s putting it lightly.) You want functional? How does building muscle, getting stronger and working on weak areas of your physique sound? Sounds pretty functional to me. And this is exactly what machines can help you accomplish.
Machines offer numerous benefits that free weights can’t. And no, I’m not suggesting you nix (or even reduce) barbell and dumbbell work from your program; rather, it’s in your best interest to complement your free weight training with regular use of selectorized machines, the cable crossover station, Hammer Strength equipment, a Smith machine and other such contraptions. And here are a handful of reasons why:
Machine Benefit #1: Safety
First and foremost, weight machines generally afford more safety than free weight exercises, which is especially helpful for beginners. No exercise is 100% safe, but you won’t have to worry about losing control of a dumbbell when doing machine overhead presses or getting trapped under a bar while benching in a Smith machine.
Machine Benefit #2: Maximum Overload
With barbells and dumbbells, part of the work you do during a set is balancing the weight to dictate the path of motion, which somewhat limits how much you can lift. Machines, on the other hand, balance the weight for you along a fixed, secure path of motion. All you have to do is push (or pull) the weight, which allows you to pile on more weight and overload your muscles is a safe manner. That said, machines don’t need to be pushed back to the end of your workout after free weights. Compound exercises like Smith machine bench press, lat pulldowns and leg presses, for example, are great to do early in your routine when you want to load up with maximum weight while your muscles are fresh.
Machine Benefit #3: Intensity-Boosting Technique
When you want to put a beating on a particular muscle group, machines are often more practical than free weights. The best example of this is drop sets, where you extend a given set past muscle failure by decreasing the load one or more times without resting and continuing to rep out. You can easily do drop sets with dumbbells by “running the rack” on exercises like curls and lateral raises, but most other free weight moves aren’t quite so conducive to the technique. Cable and selectorized machines, on the other hand, are tailor-made for drop sets. When you reach failure with a given weight, lightening the load is as simple as moving the pin down the stack one or more slots; in most cases, you can do this in literally a couple seconds.
Another key element here is exercise form. When muscles are heavily fatigued (as they’ll be in the middle of a grueling drop set), technique often suffers. Machines can help with this. Not only is the path of motion fixed, but on many machines you’re seated and thus in a less compromised position for injury. The stress is primarily focused on the target muscles, not on vulnerable joints like the lower back.
Other intensity-boosting techniques that lend themselves to machines are partial reps, where you work through just a short distance within a full range of motion; negatives, which you’re often able to do on machines without needing a spotter; unilateral negatives, where on a Smith machine, for example, you lower a heavy weight through the eccentric portion of the rep with one arm and lift it back up with both arms; angle-specific isometrics, where you press against an immovable load at as many angles as possible; and reverse movements, where you begin the lift from the bottom of the rep (as with most chest and shoulder press machines) without the help of the built up elastic energy of the eccentric component of the rep.
Machine Benefit #4: Constant Tension
Machine exercises provide guaranteed constant tension through the full of motion of every rep; free weights can’t offer this. The reason why? Gravity. Free weights rely on it to ensure tension, machines don’t.
The best example of this is the dumbbell flye. There’s tension on your pecs as you lift the dumbbells up (against gravity), but that tension is removed just as your hands come directly over your shoulders. Those last 6-12 inches or so of range of motion, where the dumbbells are coming together, are essentially useless because you’re not moving the weight against the force of gravity. This is a wasted opportunity to torch the inner pec muscle fibers, which is why I prefer to do cable flyes or cable crossovers instead. With cables, those final inches of the range of motion are the most painful, as the inner pecs take over to finish off the movement.
The Right Moves
When it comes to balancing out a training program with the right mix of free weight and machine exercises, below are some of my favorite machine moves for building mass from head to toe. Sprinkle these into your existing routine the same way you do with barbell and dumbbell exercises. Photos and instructional videos of these exercises, as well as full training programs that implement them, can be found on JimStoppani.com.
- Smith Machine Squat
- Smith Machine Front Squat
- Hack Squat Machine
- Leg Press
- Lying or Seated Leg Curl (hamstrings)
- Standing Calf Raise
- Seated Calf Raise
- Smith Machine Bench Press
- Smith Machine Incline Press
- Hammer Strength Chest Press
- Incline Cable Flye
- Cable Crossover
- Smith Machine Bent-Over Row
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Seated Cable Row
- Hammer Strength Low Row
- Assisted Pull-Up
- Machine Overhead Press
- Machine Lateral Raise
- Machine Shrug
- Cable Pressdown
- Seated Overhead Cable Extension
- Lying Incline Cable Extension
- Assisted Dip
- Machine Preacher Curl
- Smith Machine Drag Curl
- Standing Cable Curl
- High Cable Curl
- Lying Cable Curl
- Machine Crunch
- Cable Crunch
- Cable Oblique Crunch