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Training with machines has gotten a bad rap lately, as the disciples of functional fitness have all but deemed any exercise that doesn’t incorporate free weights (barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells or one’s own bodyweight) as useless and obsolete.
We respectfully disagree.
“Machines can take your training to another level, if you use them correctly,” says Liz Jackson, personal trainer, amateur figure competitor and co-owner of The Rack Gym in Ponca City, Oklahoma (therackgym.com). Using machines on a regular basis can enhance definition, increase muscle size, improve explosiveness and boost strength, according to Jackson. And because they move through a specific pathway, machines are ideal for beginners who are unsure of correct form, thereby protecting them from injury and teaching them the ropes.
Machines also can help bring up bodyparts that often get overpowered by larger muscle groups during compound moves. For instance, the calves get steamrolled by the quads and glutes during a squat, and the triceps are sidelined as assisting muscles in a bench press. Being able to single out those muscles on machines such as a donkey calf raise or a cable rope pressdown means you can bring up not only their shape to create balance but also their unique power and strength.
Your gym likely has a gamut of machines to choose from, but these four are “must-dos” for a well-rounded program that targets the total body in a myriad of ways. Definitely don’t ditch the free weights; just complement them with these magnificent machines and you’ll be stronger and more balanced in the long run.
1. Hack Squat
Muscle coverage: glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves
“Most women skirt away from the hack squat due to lack of knowledge of how to use it,” Jackson says. But it’s just as easy as a leg press; you’re just in a different position. In fact, the hack better mimics a traditional squat by keeping the feet stationary while your body moves up and down. It also allows for a greater variety of foot placements to target different areas of the lower body than a free-weight barbell squat.
Keep your feet wide and high on the platform (outside shoulder width), and press through the heels to target the glutes and hamstrings.
To emphasize the quads, space your feet hip-width apart in the middle of the platform.
To balance your legs, do single-legged hack squats with lighter weight, placing the working foot up high on the platform and raising the nonworking leg up in front of you.
2. Cable Column
Muscle coverage: full body
The No. 1 benefit of cables is guaranteed constant tension so the muscles never get a chance to rest. “I also love the versatility that cables provide,” Jackson says. “Not only can I work the negative movement more effectively with each rep, but I can do so from a variety of angles and can quickly change my weights for pyramids or burnout sets.”
Jackson particularly likes this machine for back training, even though it’s often called the “cable crossover” station in reference to chest work. “You can stimulate different areas of your back depending on your choice of attachments — rope, straight-bar, V-bar attachments, and the like,” Jackson says.
For bent-over rows, use a straight-bar attachment on the lowest pulley setting and alternate between overhand (palms down) and underhand grips (palms up).
For arms, try a hammer curl using a rope attachment on the lowest setting for biceps and the same rope on the highest setting for triceps pressdowns.
Try positioning the cable pulley on the lower, middle and upper settings to hit the chest from all angles within the same workout.
3. Assisted Dip/Pull-Up
Muscle coverage: chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps
Pull-ups and dips are a necessary evil if you want to build strength and size in your upper body. But no worries if you can’t do them solo: This machine can take you from zero to 10 (or 20 or 30) in short shrift. The machine offsets some of your bodyweight with air pressure or weight plates, allowing you to do pull-ups and dips with proper form, helping develop strength in the correct neural pathways.
“[This machine is] often used as a crutch, though, so you have to use it properly to help you progress,” Jackson warns. Start with an assisted weight that makes a pull-up or dip possible for several reps, and decrease that weight incrementally each week until you aren’t using any at all, she recommends.
Keep your elbows in close to your sides, and make your body vertical during a dip to target the triceps.
To emphasize the pecs, lean forward during dips so your chest is angled toward the floor.
When doing pull-ups, use all available grips — wide overhand, narrow underhand, neutral, etc. — to build strength at varying angles.
4. Smith Machine
Muscle coverage: full body
Because the bar is locked into a fixed path of motion, fewer stabilizing muscles are called into play with a Smith machine, which to some people speaks to a design flaw. But this limitation actually has its benefits, namely the ability to overload a particular muscle group with more weight than you’d use during the free-weight version of the exercise.
Consider a barbell squat: Keeping the bar balanced as you lower and rise limits how much weight you can use. With a Smith, however, the machine does the balancing for you, allowing you to pile on more weight. “The Smith is also great for lifting solo, as it acts as a spotter,” Jackson says. Though most people use the Smith machine for legs, it really is a total-body machine if you’re creative.
Try a one-arm overhead press to promote balance in your shoulders: Sit sideways on a flat bench and grasp the direct center of the bar with your palm facing inward.
Because balance is taken care of with the Smith, try a one-legged Romanian deadlift. You’ll be able to go heavier and will hit the hamstrings with more resistance.