Machines often get crapped on by the barbells-or-nothing crowd, but they can't deny this: a whole lot of big, strong bodies have been built with or made even better by machines.
But that crowd is partially correct too. A lot of machines really are worthless. So which ones should you include in your training? We asked several experts. Here's what they had to say.
What's the best machine in the gym?
You've probably been seeing a lot of cool lifts performed with a Landmine-style device or with one end of a barbell shoved into a corner, like this:
Those are great, but what if you don't have one of those gadgets and the gym owner doesn't take kindly to you messing up his walls? The chest-supported row or standing T-bar machine can handle many of the same exercises. The unique angle will challenge you in a whole new way. Here are a few things to try:
This one feels like the bastard love child of a squat and a sumo deadlift. Use smaller plates to get a full range of motion. Since the weight you can use is limited by the length of the bar, you can do these for higher rep finisher sets. And if you can't squat due to some old injuries, you'll probably find that you can do these just fine.
Kneeling Angled Press
This shoulder-friendly variation was popularized by Coach Nick Tumminello. You'll have to do it kneeling here of course, but it's still a great upper-body push exercise. As a bonus, prepare to rediscover your core when you do these.
Here's a different way to do one-arm rows. Think of it as a "drag curl" for the back instead of the biceps. The contraction is intense. – Chris Shugart
It's nearly impossible to duplicate with free weights what this machine can do. Several training methods work great on this machine, like maximum tension alternating pulls (hold one side isometrically in the contracted position at the bottom while the other side is moving). It also works great with bands for added accommodating resistance.
Banded Max Tension Alternating Pulldowns
I miss the old Nautilus pullover machine, and in many ways this actually beats it because of the range of motion and ability to train one side at a time. – Mark Dugdale
This machine is awesome for higher rep work AFTER you've done your lower rep, heavier work. This is my favorite way to get a huge back pump: Do 4 sets of 30 reps, which sounds like a lot, but don't panic. During each set you'll use 3 different grips (underhand, neutral, and overhand) which will help you tap into a variety of musculature in the back. You'll do 10 reps for each grip.
About 25-35 pounds per side is where I get the best mind-muscle connection. That's relatively light, but you're going for time under tension with this exercise. That light weight will begin to feel excruciatingly heavy.
- First set: Do 10 underhand grip reps. Immediately after, do 10 neutral grip reps, then do 10 reps with an overhand grip. Try not to rest between grip changes. Focus on feeling the muscle work. This means pausing at the top and squeezing, then lowering slowly until you feel the muscles you're targeting (mid-back musculature).
- Second set: Now work backwards as far as grip. Start with 10 overhand grip reps, 10 neutral grip reps, and 10 underhand grip reps. Try to feel a stretch in the back when lowering. Play with rep speed. You shouldn't need any more pauses in order to feel it working, but if you lose that mind-muscle connection, use isometric work as needed.
- Third set: Now 10 underhand, 10 neutral, 10 overhand. By this time everything should be starting to burn. So aim for a consistent rep speed and try to get them in without having to stop mid-set. You'll notice secondary muscles kicking in like rear delts and traps. This is awesome. Let them help; your pump will look even better.
- Fourth set: Finally, do 10 overhand, 10 neutral, 10 underhand. Aim for even reps and no rest. If you have to set the handles down briefly, do so, but try to get as many reps in as possible first.
If this is just too many reps, feel free to lower it to 6-8 reps per set, which would mean you'd do 18-24 per set, which is still a lot. Increase the load as needed. – Dani Shugart
When you consider most lifters have achy shoulders, terrible posture, and backs so narrow they disappear when turning sideways, it becomes painfully clear they could use more horizontal pulling. That's why my favorite machine is the plate-loaded chest supported row, ideally with multiple grips.
With this machine you're able to train more frequently and with higher volume compared to barbell rows. Since you're seated and supported by the machine, you'll more efficiently target your rhomboids, traps, lats, and rear-delts without undue stress on your spine.
Do your primary back work consisting of deadlifts, rows, and chins. Then finish off your workout and get a skin-splitting pump with this two-way mechanical advantage drop-set:
- Begin your set with the wider handles, flaring your elbows out to the sides and squeezing your shoulder blades together. This will more effectively target your traps, rhomboids, and to a lesser extent, your rear delts. Do 8-10 clean reps.
- Without resting, switch to the narrow, neutral-grip handles and perform rows by keeping your elbows close to your torso and driving your arms back. Tucking your elbows keeps the movement lat dominant, allowing you to hit a slightly different angle for an insane pump. Knock out another 8-10 reps, rest 60 seconds, and repeat for three sets twice per week.
If you don't have a plate-loaded chest supported row, many gyms have machines with different grip attachments. Give those a shot. If all else fails, do a dumbbell chest-supported row, first flaring your elbows out for the first 8-10 reps, then tucking your elbows to your sides on the final 8-10 reps.
This nasty drop-set is exactly what the weak-backed lifter needs to add strength and size quickly. – Eric Bach
My upper body pick is the flye machine. Most people struggle to build up their chests, no matter how much frequency, volume, or load they apply. The main problem? They're overtraining in the horizontal pressing plane. In other words, their main chest exercise is the bench press.
You must understand some of the basic anatomy and function of the pecs. The chest is comprised of three separate muscles: the pectoralis minor, the clavicular head of the pectoralis major (the upper chest), and the sternal head of the pectoralis major (the lower chest). However, when looking at the chest for advanced hypertrophy purposes we need to further divide this into two regions, the middle chest and lower chest.
When the entire pectoralis major works together, it produces a movement called horizontal adduction: it brings your arm across the front of your body – a flye movement.
The pectoralis major is a pretty complex muscle due to its thickness and multiple attachment points. This means you need to look at working in different angles, contractions, and positions to activate all of the muscle fibers.
Sure, you can do dumbbell flyes, but most people do them incorrectly. The machine's simplicity allows even beginners to perform this exercise.
But the real advantage of the machine over dumbbell flyes is the machine keeps constant tension throughout the entire movement. This is great for mind-muscle connection and fully contracting the working muscle. Unlike dumbbells, there's no loss of tension.
Isometric holds work superbly on this machine. Try this:
- Set 1: 10-12 reps
- Set 2: 10-12 reps
- Set 3: 8-10 reps with iso-holds
- Set 4: 8-10 reps with iso-holds (drop set x 3)
On sets three and four, you'll do an iso-hold on the even reps, squeezing at the fully contracted position for 3-5 seconds. – Michael Warren
After banging my head against a wall repeatedly with free squats and not getting anywhere, I decided to make the leg press one of the main "indicator" lifts in my rotation of quad exercises.
Remember, unless you're a powerlifter, no exercise is indispensable. The key is to find exercises that work for your body and allow you to apply progressive overload in a safe manner.
Here's how I approached this decision. If I keep squatting but continuously hurt myself and/or never really add any weight to the bar in the long run, will my legs grow? Of course not. But if I can leg press safely and stay progressive, will my legs grow? Yes!
This is by no means saying that squats aren't a good exercise. If you're built for them, they should be a staple for your leg training. But if you're someone with long femurs, or you find yourself so bent over when squatting that your back gives out before your legs, machine alternatives may be a better option.
Of all the leg presses I've used, the one machine I've found to be a cut above the rest is the Cybex plate-loaded squat press.
The beauty of this machine is that it runs on a pivot instead of the typical 45-degree fixed angle of a normal leg press. This allows for a much smoother strength curve and resistance profile, which makes it much easier to keep a neutral spine while going through a full range of motion. This is especially true for taller lifters and those with longer femurs and/or tibias whose range is often limited on traditional leg press models.
Here's how to maximize it:
- Keep your core tight at all times.
- Keep your lower back against the pad at all times – only go as low as you can while maintaining this position. You never want to let your back roll off the bottom of the seat.
- Grip the handles hard to lock yourself in.
- Control the descent, pause slightly at the bottom, and lift to just shy of lockout.
- Aim to hit at least parallel on each rep.
The rest-pause method works great with the leg press. Load it up with your 15RM weight then get 25-35 reps in one set. You do that by taking short 30 second rests without racking the weight – just hold it at the top during these short breaks. So it might look like this:
- 15 reps, rest 30 seconds
- 6 reps, rest 30 seconds
- 4 reps, rest 30 seconds
Total reps for this rest-pause set: 25. – Akash Vaghela