Call it The War Against The Machines.
There was a time when long rows of gaudy resistance training machines were the pride and joy of every gym facility, particularly the big chains. Think 1980s and 90s. The machines made training seem less forbidding. They look “high tech” in comparison to long bars and collars and plates. They make it easy to toggle resistance up and down to find a weight you’re comfortable with.
Despite these advantages, machines have been steadily losing the war ever since. For at least two decades, training professionals have been pointing out the drawbacks of machines. They isolate individual muscles, causing them to work in ways they don’t in real life. The weights themselves move along a predetermined path, removing stabilizer muscles from the equation and robbing the exerciser of the opportunity to increase stability, coordination, and functional capacity. They’re very limited; you can do hundreds of things with a dumbbell, but only one thing with a seated crunch machine.
They also, let’s face it, give people an inaccurate sense of just how strong they are. Anyone who’s ever moved the pin closer to the bottom of the stack on a machine bench press, then struggled with two 45-lb plates on a barbell in the free weight area can attest to that.
As a result, gyms have evolved in different directions. Some make a point of going full retro, with rows and rows of dumbbells, barbell plates, kettlebells, and ranks of squat racks. And then there’s the rise of boutique fitness, with its emphasis on group fitness, functional fitness, high intensity interval
training, and yoga.
In some ways, that’s too bad, because machines have their advantages. They function as an entry point into the fitness lifestyle for beginners and anyone who’s been away from the gym for a long time. There are plenty of people — perhaps you’re one of them — who just don’t want to jump directly into the deep end of the fitness pool with the daunting high-intensity classes, mountains of metal plates, and costly training sessions. Most gyms and health clubs lose 50% of their new members within six months. And those are the ambitious people who actually walked in the door and handed over their credit card. Machines are the means by which thousands of people adopt a new and lasting commitment to fitness every year.
Leaving Machine Island
Should you be moving toward free-weight training, body weight exercise and functional strength training over time? In a word, yes. Functional training that incorporates compound movements involving multiple muscle groups is the key to peak health and wellness. Strengthened stabilizer muscles and better balance / coordination will help you avoid injury. They’ll also help you do things — like getting out of a beach chair, carrying groceries into the house, or basic yard work — that will enhance your quality of life for decades to come.
Having said that, should you do it all at once? Absolutely not. Moderation is key. You don’t have to go from the bicep curl machine to sharing a mat 100% of the time with a grunting mass monster in a Gold’s Gym tank. You don’t have to risk pinning yourself beneath a barbell in the bench press. In fact, there are some machines you’ll never give up. But there are are plenty of free weight and functional exercises that closely mimic the range of motion you’re experiencing now on machines. In fact, some of those machines are doing you very little good and may actually be increasing your risk of injury.
There’s a wide sea of gym floor out there, and it’s time we sailed off our little machine island and explored some of it.
Proper Form Suddenly Becomes a Top Priority
Up until now, your exercise machines have been making all your decisions and adjustments for you. It’s been their way or the highway. Now you’re going to have to find out what works for you and how to achieve it.
Proper form is essential to getting the most muscle-building benefit out of every exercise and avoiding injury. When you’re supine on the bench press machine, proper form takes care of itself. The weights only go one way, in a single track. The machine balances the weight for you. If you work to failure, the weights won’t crush your chest. Load some plates (start small!) on a barbell and it’s a whole different story. Lift the bar off the pegs and (whoa!) the bar wobbles up there! You have to maintain control of the bar all the way down and then all the way up. How far down and how far up? Should you lock out at the top? Suddenly that’s up to you. If you don’t have a spotter, you must have a very good idea of which rep is your last rep.
It all sounds scary, but it’s really kind of liberating. But with liberation comes responsibility. Achieving proper form will help you eliminate wasted movement so you work more efficiently. It will help you work the muscles you’re trying to work, while also bringing stabilizing muscles into play. It will sharpen your focus on the task at hand, improve oxygen intake, and (most importantly) reduce injury risk.
How do you learn proper form? A few sessions with a certified trainer is almost always worth the expense. If you’re on a tight budget, there are literally thousands of YouTube videos laying out the do’s and don’ts of every possible exercise. The mirrors on the gym walls have been the subject of a million jokes, but they also serve a purpose. Watch yourself and learn. Eventually you won’t need the mirrors (except for some discreet preening) because you’ll feel the right form in your bones.
Free Weight / Body Weight Substitutions
As we’ve said, there are some machines you’ll never leave behind. Some people can’t do an unassisted pull-up. For them, the lat pull-down machine makes perfect sense; the movement is very similar to a pull-up. Here, however, are some machines that can be the first booted from your regimen.
1. Seated Crunch Machine —> Ab Rollout
How are crunch machines still a thing? Why are they taking up floor space in a gym? Even regular sit-ups and crunches, where you curl up over and over on a mat, have long fallen out of favor. They’re bad for your neck, bad for your shoulders, put your spine in an unnatural position, and compress your lower back. And that’s before you add a stack of metal plates to the equation.
See that little vertical wheel with the handles on either side? That’s an ab roller. Get on your knees, grab the handles and roll forward, roll back. Your core muscles will resist flexion and extension to stay stable while your back stays straight. Another option here is planks with or without a stability ball.
2. Bench Press Machine —> Push-Up
The functional training equivalent of the bench press machine is the greatest bodyweight movement ever -- the humble push-up. Push-ups activate your delts, your pecs, your triceps, your abdominals, and the wing muscles under your armpit, the serratus anterior.
Better yet, you can put added emphasis on any muscle group just by changing position. To focus on chest and shoulders, set your hands wide. To focus resistance on your triceps, move your hands in narrow.
If you're just getting started, do a modified push-up, with your knees touching the floor. Once you get up to speed, you can add difficulty to your push-ups by doing decline push-ups with your feet up on a bench or chair, or plyometric push-ups, where you spring up off the ground entirely (or even add a handclap between push-ups).
Another good thing about push-ups is you can do them anywhere, not just the gym. Push-ups make an excellent ramp up to your ultimate goal, which is the free-weight bench press. Yes, you can do it. Just start with an empty barbell (about 45 lbs) and progress from there. If you don’t have a spotter, remember to keep your lifts conservative.
3. Smith Machine —> Trap Bar / Goblet Squat / Hip Thrust
Yes, you can put metal plates on it. And also yes, it’s still a machine. The Smith machine’s bar balances the weight for you and moves in a fixed track. If you’ve always been leery of bending forward, grabbing a barbell and deadlifting it, there’s a remedy for that. The trap bar.
It’s that hexagonal weight bar with two handles and prongs on each side for plates. Put plates on both sides and step into the hexagon. Now, instead of leaning forward and risking your back, you’re centered within the weights and can work your glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps and even your lower back in relative safety. Other options are goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell, and a barbell hip thrust in which you place your back perpendicular on a bench, lay a barbell across your lap, and raise and lower your hips.
4. Seated Leg Extension / Curl —-> Squats and Lunges
It makes no sense to isolate leg muscles in exercise. Your hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves are all designed to work in unison. Separating them out risks damage to your knees and encourages imbalances between the muscles. Compound movements solve all of this and the big daddy of compound movements is the squat. The squat rack looks forbidding, but you can start with just the barbell, which weighs 45 lbs on its own. The squat works more muscle groups than any other exercise you can do, and is superb for building balance and coordination. An alternate option is lunges with or without dumbbells, which will really get your heart pumping as well.
5. Seated Twist Machine —> Planks
Did we say the crunch machine was the dumbest machine? We stand corrected. The seated twist machine serves little purpose other than contorting your back into unnatural shapes. Walk far away from this one, find some space on a mat and do some side planks. To work your obliques, side planks, farmer’s carries with dumbbells or kettlebells, and even one-armed overhead presses are also far superior methods.
6. Back Extension Machine —> Back Extension Bench
Using the back extension machine is basically like being in a car wreck. Flexing your back over and over in a rigid position without your glutes or quads to help is a recipe for disaster. Instead head over to the back extension bench, that simple piece of furniture with a foot plate, a bar for behind your knees, and a pad at hip height. Bend forward, lift yourself up. If that’s not challenging enough, hug a weight to your chest. A perfect compound movement.
7. Pec Deck —> Dumbbell Flye
The pec deck’s biggest problem is its unnatural range of motion. Adjust it all you want, you’ll never approximate the natural movement you’ll get by lying on your back on a bench balancing a dumbbell in each hand. Self explanatory, really.
8. Seated Abductor Machine —-> Squats / Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
In every gym in America right now, someone is sitting in the seated abductor machine, forcing their legs open and closed, fraying their hip capsules and IT bands. It doesn’t have to be this way. Remember: lower body, compound movements. Squats work fine here (they really are the perfect exercise) and so do single leg exercises. A Romanian deadlift involves holding a weight with an overhand grip, lowering at the hip, keeping your spine straight, then pushing your hips forward, as you draw your shoulders back and rise to a standing position. The single leg variation activates your core and strengthens your abductors.
And that’s it, the beginning of your charted course off Machine Island. Enjoy your new expanded gym domain!
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