Whether it’s the lat pulldown station or the squatting rack, gym machines are intended to help you zero in on the exact muscle group you want to target. And what’s not to love about that, right?
Plenty, according to some trainers who are increasingly steering clients away from machines and teaching them to use body resistance and free weights instead. (Just look at CrossFit, which is famous for not using machines at all, though barbells are a mainstay.)
All of which begs the question: Are the tools that gym-goers have been relying on for decades becoming a relic?
We asked two experts with very, very different opinions to weigh in. See what they say—and let us know which side of the great gym machine debate you side with.
The fan: Edem Tsakpoe, master trainer at New York Sports Club
When Edem Tsakpoe works with clients, he relies on a mix of body resistance, free weights, and yes, machines. “Every machine in the gym was built for a purpose,” he says. “They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have some sort of benefit.”
Tsakpoe finds that they’re especially beneficial for anyone who’s just embarking on a strength training routine. “People who are new to the gym and want to be fit overall are best off starting with the machines and building strength in certain muscle groups,” he says.
His reasoning? Machines help correct imbalances, like uneven shoulders from lugging around a heavy purse, or weak back muscles from slouching at a desk all day. The idea is to work on those imbalances so you can eventually step away from the machine and use a comparable free weight once you’re rocking truly awesome form.
But, Tsakpoe adds, gym machines aren’t just for newbies or people with imbalances. If you’re looking to build size in one particular area, like your legs or arms, they let you target that zone in a safe way, which is why so many body builders use them.
It’s all about that extra support. “If you were to do a leg press on the machine, you could keep on stacking weight and build those muscles without having to worry about stabilizing your tissue so much,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about the tissue or smaller muscle groups that might buckle under the weight you are putting them under.”
The skeptic: Diery Prudent, personal trainer and founder of Prudent Fitness
Diery Prudent’s outdoor fitness center doesn’t look like a gym—at all. There are no mirrors, no locker rooms, and no machines. (Not to mention, it’s in a Brooklyn brownstone, with a Zen garden.) But there’s a reason why he prefers rocks, logs, and free weights, which litter his chic set-up, to heavy machinery: Prudent’s workout philosophy is rooted in prepping the body for daily wear-and-tear.
“A machine isn’t going to be able to replicate the muscles you need to change a tire when you get a flat, or pushing a baby stroller with one hand and carry a bag of groceries with the other hand,” he says. “That’s what I train people for.”
A lat pulldown machine will target your arms, but picking up a heavy rock works your arms, shoulders, and core in a truly functional way, he argues, since all the muscle groups are connected. “If I put you on a machine, I know I can put you on a cable and [have you] lift 35 pounds in one plane of movement, but I don’t know if you can lift that same 35 pounds if it’s on the ground in front of you, in the form of a small child,” Prudent says.
And he’s not sold on the idea of using machines to target specific weaknesses, because muscles don’t work in isolation in the real world. “If it’s an imbalance to one specific muscle, what about all the muscles around it?” he asks. “What about the muscles on the other side? If you’re isolating one part of the body to correct that imbalance, how is that going to get the whole unit to function as a whole?”
There is something both Tsakpoe and Prudent totally agree on, however. Whatever you settle on, doing something is better than nothing. So if it’s a workout machine or a set of free weights that gets you sweating and feeling confident, that’s worth coming back for.
Working out and lifting weights is awesome, of course, but don’t let it sabotage your metabolism. (It happens!) And if you do decide to ditch the machines, make sure you’re not doing these classic workout moves wrong.