Don’t hate on machines!

Don’t hate on machines!

In advance of my first official exercise-specific post, I thought I should clarify something that I’m sure I will be asked soon enough. I like, and I use, machines when I lift weights.

Does that mean I think machines should be used in favour of free weights? Absolutely not. I think, wherever possible, you should aim to perform an exercise with dumbbells, barbells or cables. But there is a time and a place for machines, and in some cases using a machine actually presents an advantage.

The reason why machines are often thought to be less beneficial than free weights is because they are easier to use – you do not need to engage as many stabilising muscles when performing the exercises – and they also tend to force your body into an unnatural movement pattern. Machines also make it difficult to correct muscle imbalances.

Three machines that are often looked down upon in the strength training world are the leg extension, leg press and Smith machines. I regularly use all three of these machines.

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The leg extension machine does not replicate any movement in every day life, and it is assumed to place a lot of pressure on the knees. I personaly love using this machine because I have overdeveloped hamstrings which tend to take over during most leg exercises. This is the only exercise where I can really isolate the quadriceps muscle.

Given my own experience, I disagree that it puts pressure on the knee. Because of my crazy desire to be a long-distance runner back in the day, I suffered from severe knee pain. It worsened to the point where I could no longer walk without limping. It was during this time that I started using the leg extension machine and my knee strength improved significantly in a short amount of time. Of course, I would always suggest starting with a very light weight for a large number of repetitions. And, if you only had time to squat or use a leg extension machine, I would always squat.

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The leg press is a perfect example of a machine that gives you a false sense of strength. I can stack on 200kg (440lbs) on a leg press machine, but I’m only squatting around one third of that weight. The major benefit of the leg press is that it takes pressure off your lower back. Out of all the machines, it’s also the only one that hits all the major muscles of your legs at the same time.

A Smith machine is a great piece of equipment for those who are attempting to lift heavy weight for the first time. While I would always recommend that a beginner should learn proper patterns of movement and form by using free weights, it can be terrifying for someone to whack on the big plates for the first time with no spotter. The Smith machine provides peace of mind, and allows the lifter to become confident with the weights in a safe way.  The fact that the bar is locked in means you can focus on form and correct alignment without worrying about what the bar is doing.

Erin Stern performing calf raises on a Smith machine

The disadvantage of a Smith machine is that it forces your body to follow an exact path of movement, unlike a free-standing Olympic bar. I think that someone who refuses to ever use a Smith machine is actually worse than someone who uses it in every workout!

I rarely squat using a Smith machine, unless I’m trying to really murder my quads, but I taught myself to bench by doing a lot of work with the Smith machine. Now, I love using it for shoulder presses (I feel it isolates the muscle better, which is what I need in my shoulder training!) and Bulgarian split squats. I almost always finish a Smith machine exercise with a drop set.

All that being said, I would still never ever advocate the use of the hip adductor  and abductor machines, to name a couple. I would never promote a workout which only uses machines, but I just wanted to warn you in advance that som e of my upcoming workouts will include machines!

Do you incorporate machines into your training? What do you think of the machines above?

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