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Machine-Made Muscle

Bill Geiger, MA

How do machines compare to free weights in building muscle? Here are the pros and cons, plus the best machine movements you should be doing.

Gym rats have argued the merits of free weights versus machine training for decades, and although we thought the argument had been settled years ago, advances in technology have reopened the debate. The design and construction of today’s weight machines allow you to achieve many of the muscle-building benefits that free weights offer with built-in safety advantages. If you don’t have a spotter, with today’s machines you can safely apply a number of intensity-boosting techniques that allow you to train to muscle failure. For mass-seeking bodybuilders, it’s not about if but rather whenand howto integrate machines into your training.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each.

When Machines Are Better

It wouldn’t be fair to make a black-and-white statement that machines are inferior to free weights because they’re actually superior under some circumstances. In fact, even advanced bodybuilders include machine training in their workouts, but not randomly. Let’s first check when machine training is most useful.

1. They’re safer when training alone. If you’ve ever had a barbell stuck across your chest when benching, you know that a spotter is critical when pushing heavy weights to failure. Even getting a bar into and out of position—such as when doing decline presses or behind-the-neck shoulder presses—can be tricky. If you don’t have a training partner, machines can allow you to safely push yourself to your limit with less risk of getting stuck.

2. Set-up is fast. Many machines are easy to adjust to your body type and often require no more than inserting a pin to select your weight.If you’re in a hurry, training with machines may allow you to complete your workout in minimal time.

3. Beginners can learn proper biomechanics. With free weights, you must balance the weights and control the movement pathway, which is especially difficult for beginners, especially when they’re first learning a movement pattern. With machines, the biomechanics of the movement are usually predetermined; the machine pretty much dictates your body position and you push the weight in only one plane. By starting out on machines, you condition the muscular and nervous systems before moving over to free weights.

4. Advanced lifters can train heavy. While most bodybuilders rely on free weights early in their workout, as fatigue sets in, many switch over to machines so they don’t have to rely on highly fatigued stabilizer muscles to help control the weight. Here, advanced lifters can still safely go very heavy but need only concentrate on pushing or pulling the weight rather than controlling it.

5. They can help with injury rehab. With free weights, the muscle and connective tissues work harder to stabilize a joint, which can aggravate a pre-existing injury. With machines, on the other hand, joint stress is highly reduced because motion is restricted, meaning under most circumstances you can safely train a target muscle with less irritation. Of course, if the machine isn’t set up correctly, here too you can aggravate a joint.

6. They can boost workout intensity. You can do any number of advanced training techniques easily with machines, including drop sets (quickly pulling and reinserting a pin for fast weight changes), forced reps (some chest-press machines have a foot plate, enabling you to assist the concentric motion by pushing with your foot when you reach muscle failure), partial reps (limiting the range of motion), and heavy negatives (in which you can more safely lower a very heavy weight with the aid of a spotter).

7. They maintain constant tension on a muscle. When you get to the top of the range of motion of some free-weight moves, as in an EZ-bar preacher curl or flat-bench dumbbell flye, tension on the muscle is somewhat reduced. Not so with machines because the angle of pull is not the same as gravity. Typically, the degree of resistance is the same throughout the ROM.

When Machines Come Up Short

Though good reasons exist to include machines in your training, free weights have a decided advantage over machines under other circumstances.

1. You don’t have a “typical” body type. Machines were manufactured for average builds; while you may be able to make some adjustments, if you’re overly tall or short, or have overly long or short limbs, they simply may not fit your body type. If you can’t make the suitable adjustments for your proportions, you may force a joint(s) into a vulnerable position.

2. You’re not working in all planes of movement. Because you push or pull in a single direction with most machines, you’re not working the target muscle completely. With free weights, you push weights up andtogether (think of incline dumbbell presses), meaning you must control the weights not only in the up-and-down plane of gravity, but north-south and east-west planes as well. Some newer machines have addressed this limitation, but you still don’t have the degree of freedom you have with free weights.

3. Stabilizer activity is reduced. The machine dictates themovement pattern, meaning your body doesn’t have to work as hard maintaining proper form and balancing the weight. This typically reduces the work contributed by the muscles of your abs and low back, the core muscles. Less overall muscle stimulation means you’re also burning fewer total calories.

4. They don’t transfer over to sports or real-world activities. You may have practiced a movement on a machine in the gym, but when you’re playing a sport, you don’t get the same degree of body support. The body of a typical athlete is in motion and often off-balance, a difference that’s impossible to duplicate on a machine. You also miss out on coordination and balance skills when you rely solely on machine training. Machines that support your body can’t duplicate the tasks you face in daily life either because you don’t get that degree of support, either.

5. They don’t strengthen connective tissue. While the upside of machine training means that a sore joint won’t be stressed to the same degree, when you don’t have a joint injury you do want to strengthen connective tissue, including tendons and ligaments, which help balance, control and guide free weights through the proper range of motion. Those tissues get far more work when training with free weights, and it’s essential to strengthen them just like muscle tissue.

6. They’re impractical for home gyms. If you train at home, you can assemble some basic free-weight equipment for several hundred dollars with minimal space requirements; it would cost you thousands to set up a comparable grouping of machines, not to mention taking up a whole lotta space. That’s simply not practical for most home budgets.

Fine-Tuning Your Machine Movements

Clearly, machines can benefit just about any lifter, but it has to be under the right circumstances. When you decide to include a machine movement in your workout, here are three important keys to maximize their effectiveness:

Make adjustments beforehand. Many machines have several adjustable levers in which you can fine-tune alignment based on your body type and limb length. Chances are the person who used it ahead of you isn’t built just like you, so you’ll want to make all the necessary adjustments—some may not be obvious—beforeattempting heavy weights. Get into position and use a light weight to ensure everything feels right before doing your first working set.

The weight stack should never touch down between reps. When the weight touches down on the stack, even for a brief moment, tension is released from the muscle, which reduces time under tension and diminishes your muscle-building efforts. Readjust the machine to ensure that the muscle has tension on it, especially in the fully stretched position.

Push yourself. Machines make the movement pattern easier, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to use less effort. In fact, since you don’t have to worry about balancing a bar or dumbbells, challenge yourself with some mass-building weights. Because the machine has a built-in spotter of sorts, you can really overload your muscles.

So you can have your cake and eat it too, utilizing both machines and free weights at the right times to optimize your training. But just like that cake, you can get too much of a good thing. Learn how to use both types of equipment and insert them into your workout appropriately.

Best Machine Exercises

Legs: Squat machine, Smith machine

Hamstrings: Smith machine (for Romanian deadlifts)

Calves: Donkey calf raise

Triceps: Seated triceps machine dip, Smith machine (close-grip bench)

Biceps: Seated machine curl, machinepreacher curl

Chest: Decline chest press, Smith machine, pec deck

Shoulders: Overhead shoulder press, seated lateral-raise machine

Upper traps: Shrug machine, Smith machine

Back: Supported T-bar row, Smith machine (bent-over rows)

Abs: Crunch machine