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Training Techniques for Women

Are Exercise Machines a Waste of Time?

We take a look at some gym equipment that may be considered less than functional — what do you think?

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I’m part of a generation that remembers the Bowflex and Total Gym television infomercials all too well. Back then, these were necessary staples in the fitness consumer’s gym, because they promised strength and cardiovascular training all in one — a novel concept at the time. I’ve also come from a place in the last decade where bikes, treadmills, and stepping machines played some of my favorite movies and I was there for it, regretfully, sometimes until the credits began to roll. 

There was a day, not long ago, where reading about kettlebell swings, wall balls, and clean and jerks was rare. Fast forward to today, and we have the functional fitness era that relies heavily on barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, and bodyweight movements. None of these require machines, many of which have been reserved as a place to hang clothes or collect dust. The shift toward function and form in the mainstream fitness space is tangible. 

The problem with “classic” gym equipment like the leg extension and the inner- and outer-thigh machine is precisely that — they are not functional. As humans, we move in multiple planes of motion and these types of machines simply don’t allow for that. Additionally, many of the things we do in life require muscle groups to work together: squatting, pressing, jumping, and running. These are all compound movements with variables that are not addressed when you are working a muscle in isolation, like the knee extension or tricep extension machines. 

With all that being said, do machines exist that are still worth your time?  Here’s the short list.

Lat Pull Down
(Photo: GettyImages)

4 Machines Worth Using in Your Workouts

1. The Lat Pulldown Machine 

This piece of equipment works the compound muscle groups of your mid back. If you are trying to achieve a stronger posterior chain or get your first strict pull-up, utilizing this tool can improve functional pulling strength. 

2. The Cable Machine

This machine lets you recreate most functional movements. With this, you can add weight to functional movements such as pushing, pulling, squatting, twisting and bending. Keep in mind, however, you are still confined to the plane of motion of the cable. Therefore, the movement patterns you can accomplish, while variable, are not necessarily all-encompassing or natural. A weighted dumbbell squat would allow you to move within greater functional ranges of motion that are more innate. 

3. The Smith Machine

This one is good for those who are just learning to squat with load. This machine only allows for up and down motion, essentially confining you to vertical movement. This is great for beginners who need more midline development before they feel comfortable loading a barbell.  

A loaded barbell in the back rack position can create excessive hyperextension in the low back without proper core development. The Smith machine allows for you to have a more forward stance, locking you into the machine and eliminating the worry of instability that comes with a free barbell on your back. 

4. The Bike/ Treadmill: 

Every gym has one, but instead of hopping on it and staying long enough to watch a movie (refer to my intro paragraph), use it for interval training. Try 30-second sprints followed by a 20-second recovery period or a 400-meter run followed by deadlifts and box jumps. Using cardio equipment in this way builds cardiovascular endurance and strength.

Machines You Probably Don’t Need

Bodybuilding has taken a back seat to functional fitness and so have the machines that support that type of training. Aesthetics are great, but people want to train for health and physique changes. They no longer need to choose one or the other — so why should they?  

With that being said, what machines should you avoid? Basically, anything that only focuses on one muscle group as opposed to compound groups. Here are a few examples of machines that are more or less obsolete: 

  • Biceps curl station
  • Butterfly machine 
  • Biceps and triceps cable bar 
  • Seated leg press 
  • Crunch machines 
  • Torso rotation 
  • Leg extension machine 

While this list is not all-encompassing, it certainly touches upon some big time-wasters. None of these machines are functional or use our prime movers in closed kinetic chain. Long story short: Whenever possible, pick a platform to perform a movement that is functional. That will always give you the most return on your investment.