Many trainers are very quick to point out that resistance training machines are not “functional”. By which they mean that using a machine fails to replicate everyday movements. For example, they’ll tell you that leg extensions are unnatural, that squats are more functional than leg presses, and that you should be doing pull-ups and not pull-downs.
While they have a point – machines aren’t as functional as free weights and bodyweight exercises – that doesn’t mean you should dismiss resistance machines altogether. Resistance machines, just like free weights, kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, and even resistance bands, are simply tools. None of these tools are better than the others – you just need to use the right tool for the job.
There are several reasons why machines can be a valuable part of your workout…
1. Targeting specific muscles
Resistance machines allow you to target specific muscles. Free weight exercises are not so good for this and while they are great for building strength and size, if you have a “weak link” you need to fix, a machine may be the better choice. For example, leg curls allow you to specifically target and isolate your hamstrings while leg extensions do the same for your quadriceps. These exercises might not be functional in the common definition of the word but can enhance the function of specific muscles.
Whether you want to target a muscle for size gains or for injury prevention/recovery, machines are often the best option.
Squatting or bench pressing heavy weights can be dangerous – especially if you cannot complete a repetition and end up pinned under the bar. Getting crushed by a heavy weight is no laughing matter and could easily result in serious injury or even death.
The Smith machine, chest press machine, and leg press allow you to exercise with heavy weights in relative safety – even if you are on your own. However, even a machine exercise can cause injury if you do not do it properly. Technique is important for machine as well as free weight exercises.
3. Maximum overload
Because machines guide the weights and often your movements too, you can forget all about balancing bars and dumbbells and focus exclusively on pushing or pulling with all your might. This means you can work harder which is important for both muscle size and strength.
Machine exercises, being technically easier than free weights, are also a great way to finish off a muscle group when fatigue makes balance and coordination a challenge. For example, after squats, leg presses make for a great way to safely “finish off” your legs.
4. Great for beginners
Because the weight and movement is guided by the machine, resistance machine exercises are very useful for beginners who have yet to develop the coordination and technique necessary for safe free-weight performance. Squats, deadlifts, and bench presses ARE great exercises but many beginners find them difficult. Machines are instant as they have no real learning curve. This makes them ideal for new exercisers.
Machines also allow beginners to develop the strength necessary to perform bodyweight exercises. For example, a few weeks of lat pull downs will allow you to get strong enough to progress to pull-ups and the chest press machine can develop the strength necessary for press-ups. Machines allow you to regress a workout to make it more suitable for beginners.
5. Intensity-boosting techniques
Machines aren’t just for beginners – they are also useful for advanced exercisers too. You can use machines to really overload your muscles by using intensity-boosting techniques such as drop sets, partial reps, 21s, negatives, training to failure, and unilateral negatives (raise the weight with two limbs, lower it with one).
While you can perform some of these techniques with free weights, they are often more effective and safer with machines. For example, drop sets on bench presses or squats requires two spotters but you can do drop sets on your own using leg extensions or machine chest press.
Ditching the machines from your workout because they are “not functional” is a mistake as they offer many benefits that cannot be matched by free weight or bodyweight exercises. Smart exercisers use all the resources they have available and resistance machines are just another tool you can use in your quest to get bigger, fitter, and stronger.
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