Let’s face it—gym machines get a bad rap. Nowadays, people are more interested in swinging a kettlebell around or heading out to a HIIT class to fire up those muscles, and it’s easy to see why. Since many machines generally isolate specific muscle groups, you’re not getting the multi-benefits that compound movements tend to allow for.
Plus, form can too often be sacrificed when working with machines, which can raise the risk of injury. “Many exercisers do not know at what height the seat or handles should be set, or the proper range of motion of the exercise which can increase their risk of injury when using machines,” says Jeff Monaco, CSCS, National Education Manager at Gold’s Gym. So if you find yourself looking like a shrug emoji, get up and ask someone to show you the proper form.
And even better, go into the gym with an agenda and the knowledge of which machines are worth your time and which are totally fine to skip. To help with that, we’ve polled trainers to help you navigate the gym machines and look like a pro.
The cable cross: “One of my favorite machines in the gym is the Freemotion dual cable cross. This machine has two multi-angle adjustable arms and two weight stacks that can be used independently or together,” says Monaco. It’s super versatile and is easy to position the handles correctly according to body type and size. Plus, you can engage many muscle groups at once instead of isolating one section. “Some great exercises to do include the standing chest press, standing row, cable wood chops, and cable kickbacks to build the glutes,” he says.
The iso-lateral chest press and iso-lateral lat pull down: “The hammer strength machines are plate-loaded, meaning you add weight plates to them, and are designed to follow the natural movement patterns of the body,” says Monaco. You can also use heavier weights safely without a spotter—so you can get to the gym no matter if your gym buddy bails. “This machine allows for the exerciser to work each side of the body independently or both sides together on the same machine,” he says.
The assisted pull-up machine: Work your way up to those non-assisted pull-ups. “This machine allows you to build up your strength over time by removing weight from the base. The more weight on the base, more assistance with the pull-up,” says Rebecca Gahan, CPT, owner of Kick@55 Fitness in Chicago. The machine is set up so that you have proper form and recruit the correct muscle groups as you learn to master the pull-up. “It’s the equivalent of learning how to ride a bike by starting with training wheels,” she adds.
The cable rack: “My favorite gym machine is a cable rack, hands down. It’s so versatile and busts the above argument completely,” says Kourtney Thomas, CSCS. Through a variety of attachments and positions, you can work muscles in isolation, the whole body, and the core. “I especially love any kind of cable torso rotation or wood chop,” she says.
Preacher curl biceps machine: You can build a great mind-muscle connection and definition in isolation with this machine, says Thomas. A close second would be the pec dec/reverse fly machine for the same reason, she says. You’ll definitely see your arms grow stronger.
The abdominal crunch machine: Get a strong core another way, my friend. “Many people already spend the vast majority of their day sitting, so climbing into a seated abdominal crunch machine and loading on a lot of weight should be avoided,” says Monaco.
“Many abdominal crunch machines target the rectus abdominis, or the ‘six-pack’ muscles that many desire. Those muscles have a very short range of motion and are not intended to lift a large amount of weight,” he says. So, this machine takes you beyond the normal range of motion of those muscles and adds a lot of weight, which can lead to injury. “A better alternative would be the plank exercise, the hollow body exercise, and the standing cable wood chop,” he says.
The seated back extension machine: “The seated back extension machine is used by a lot of exercisers who want to strengthen their low back either due to existing low-back pain, or to prevent low-back pain,” says Monaco. Yet this machine follows right along with the abdominal crunch machine in putting the targeted muscles beyond their natural range of motion and adding heavy weight. Better alternatives would be the prone cobra, superman, bird dogs, and bridges, he says, all of which work the back and keep you safe.
Tricep extension machine: Avoid the tricep extension machine and work the triceps another way, says Raleigh, North Carolina-based certified personal trainer Olo Onuma. “Working your tricep muscles, for the most part, can put unnecessary pressure on your elbows but the Tricep Extension Machine is very notorious for that, even with a lighter weight,” Onuma says. Instead use the tricep rope pressdown. It puts much less pressure on the elbows.
Trainers ranked the best (and worst) “As Seen on TV” Ab exercise equipment. And hit up this machine for a full body workout.
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