Machines get a bad rap. Your local “globo” or “commercial” gym is riddled with them. The internet trolls and Instagram trainers are fast to the punch and love to discredit these gyms. But, I’m here to let you know each one has its place.
Machines are, by definition "an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work; a simple device for altering the magnitude or direction of a force. The six basic types are the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, screw, wedge, and inclined plane."
The use of machines is abused first and foremost because most people don’t know how to use them. Your average gym goer will watch helplessly as someone approaches a machine who is reasonably fit, they watch what they do, and then copy what looks like a reasonably straightforward motion.
To much dismay, they attempt the same workout, but do not activate the right muscle groups and perhaps get featured on a Vine or YouTube fail channel. I’m here to dispel the myth that all machines are bad.
When it comes to gym machines we are most concerned with lever, axle, pulley, and inclined plane. Cable machines run on a pulley system, Nautilus machines, for instance, run on levers (imagine the sitting tricep press down machine).
These are easier ways to transmit force over an area without much compromise from the body. It also allows for a not as steep of learning curve. In doing so, the ability to increase strength, without learning much technique, gets an overall better isolation contraction—this is a go-to method for most.
The Cons of the Machine
With the ease of use there is also an opportunity for abuse. This is in part due to an unrealized stabilizer muscle defect. Nearly 90% of people have some defect in their stabilizer muscles from repetitive tasks, imbalances, or being on their smartphone more than anything else.
A machine will not tax your stabilizers in the same way as free weights and cables will. Furthermore, due to their “simplistic” system, it is very easy to overload without correcting form. Machines run in a linear fashion and do not account for subtle movements in 3D space in comparison to “functional” movements in the gym.
The Machine Overview
Machines and cables alike provide a unique feature that gravity does not, consistent resistance. As you lift, the machine begins to pull you in the opposite direction. It is possible to “muscle” the weight in a rapid fashion to get from point A to B. However, not utilizing the unique features of machines is a disservice to you.
Consistent resistance allows for time under tension (TUT). It is a principle that gym goers strive for: the pump. However, time under strain (TUS) is the more accurate term because it is measuring the amount of time your fibers experience straining forces (physics buffs out there, this one is for you!). This concept is important in creating sufficient metabolic stress (lactic acid buildup) in order to create a stimulus for growth.
For me, feeling my muscles fully stretch then fully contract throughout the whole movement, along with the need to sustain a contraction to overcome a resistance, is the most rewarding feeling. Machines hit the spot here, but do not neglect cables, for they are also machines.
A quick machine overview:
- The chest press or pec dec, for instance, can be manipulated such that once your scapulae are squeezed together as in a bench press, you can overload well here and create much needed pec symmetry.
- The leg extension machine is a gold mine for quadricep development because manipulating the distance from the fulcrum of the machine will enhance either the rectus femoris muscle or emphasize the vastus medialis. Also, changing your foot positioning by pointing the toes in the air is a bonus.
- The lat pulldown machine can be utilized to create symmetry, thickness, and width throughout the back by changing the angle, handles used, and grip.
In my training, there are two machines that without a doubt have tapered my physique to one that I believe is acceptable—the seated row machine and the leverage high row machine.
My Favorite Machines: Seated Row Machine
There are two modes of sitting: on the bench or raised either by a heavy dumbbell or a few bumper plates. What this does to the back angle is amazing. By placing yourself on an incline, you are effectively able to hit the lower lats for thickness. Furthermore, by sitting on the bench provided, you can hit the mid and lower trapezius muscles.
The commonly used handle, which will be demonstrated here is the V-bar. I always advise my clients to wrap their thumbs over the bar instead of under it, as in normal cases. In the beginning, this taxes the grip, however, and through much diligence it emphasizes the back rather than the accompanying bicep muscles.
For focusing on the target muscles, I ask my clients to initiate the movement by engaging their back and squeezing as much as possible until they cannot contract anymore—then I instruct them to pull with their arms. The peak contraction will come from the presence of elbows behind the body, as this too is one of the actions of the lats.
My Favorite Machines: Leverage High Row Machine
Leverage is the idea that mechanical advantageous positions via use of a lever will improve power output by the muscle at work. This is commonly experienced with a slight arch in the back during a chin-up where the scapulae can have a larger range of motion. This also puts the lats in a more favorable position.
In this example, I opt for unilateral or one armed rows to avoid the commonly used “humping and pumping” motion. If I can see that my client has a command over individual (side) pulling muscles I will then move them to bilateral ones. I emphasize the same idea of pulling with the target muscle prior to pulling with the hands. For most back machines I use my hands only act as “hooks” to hold the weight in place, nothing more.
Put Machines to Use
The general stigma associated with machines is that “they are reserved for beginners”—yet that's far from the truth. Bodybuilders lay down a strong case that with the right machines you will get yoked.
As I hope you can see, machines are not evil—they aren’t the bane of fitness. Work with them and they will work with you. Let’s chase the pump together.