As someone who has been involved in the fitness industry throughout the last 16 years, I’ve seen a lot of fitness trends come and go. The pendulum has swung back and forth from a time where machines ruled the fitness industry to a time when they were considered nonfunctional. Because I was uninformed, I too became someone who turned his back on machines and claimed they were nonfunctional. Over the past 3 years, I’ve reconsidered the use of machines and recommend them to the majority of my general population clients, athletes, and those who are looking to improve their physiques. Read this article to find out 3 reasons to use machines in your training program.

 

Are Machines Functional?

This was the question that led to many battles in the strength and fitness industry throughout the early 2000s. As it often happens when individuals disagree, the fitness industry was divisive and left with tribes who proposed machines were better than free weights and tribes who claimed machines were nonfunctional. So who was right? As with most things in life, there’s usually a gray area.

What does functional even mean? Functional to an athlete may be a completely different meaning to someone who works out a few days a week for general health purposes. For something to be considered functional, it ultimately depends on your goals. Are you hoping to isolate a weaker muscle group following a sports injury? Machines can be functional in helping you achieve this goal. Are you someone who is new to weight training and feels more comfortable using a machine versus free weights? Machines are functional in helping you achieve this goal. Without weight training, humans lose 3% to 8% of muscle mass per decade after the age of 30 (Volpi et al 2004). Weight training on machines can be functional in prolonging one’s life by preventing age-related muscle loss called sarcopenia. How much more functional than that can you get?

LISTEN: HOW TO BEGIN STRENGTH TRAINING

begin strength training use machines in training program

 

I use both free weights and machines when programming for clients or athletes because they fill in the gaps on what each type of exercise is missing. If working with an athlete who needs to be good at moving their body through space in a closed chain environment, I’ll rely on free weight exercises to accomplish this goal. Controlling a free weight develops stability and balance, whereas machines are occurring in a fixed path. Free weights are generally a better choice when choosing compound exercises like a squat, bench press, or deadlift. I often will program free weight exercises first in a client’s program, and fill in the gaps throughout the rest of the session with secondary movements performed on machines.

You aren’t forced to pick one or the other; you can choose both in a program to maximize your results. These are the 3 reasons to use machines in your training program:

 

1. Machines provide greater stability

This reason is useful for both beginners and the experienced trainee.

For beginners, machines provide constraints since they travel along a fixed path. This can be helpful in teaching someone a movement pattern for the first time since machines have a low learning curve compared to free weights. The beginner doesn’t have to worry about their body deviating from side to side or front to back. Machines help to prevent unwanted movement which make them a great choice for general population. The trainee can continue to focus on increasing load over time without worrying about the balance and stability that often occurs with free weight exercises.

 

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fitness gym program use machines in training program

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Training To Failure

In the article “How to Gain Muscle without Injury” I discussed training to failure. If your goal is to gain muscle, you have to train close to failure with the amount of reps you are performing. It’s inherently more dangerous taking a barbell exercise to failure versus a machine based exercise. In a barbell exercise, unwanted movement can occur as you are approaching failure which can cause injuries. It also requires a spotter who is attentive to your movement while squatting and benching, which presents another challenge. With experienced trainees, I often recommend achieving greater intensity by going to failure on machine based exercises. Since machines provide more stability, it’s easier to direct the stimulus to the targeted muscles. In a machine squat example, your legs should be fatiguing before your back, whereas your back is often the first to fatigue during a back squat.

For the lower body, I like machine based exercises like the hack squat, pendulum squat, or leg press for training close to failure. For the upper body, I like machine chest and shoulder presses when training the upper body close to failure.

Pendulum Squat

 

Sore From A Hard Workout? Watch This To Recover Faster!

 

2. Machines allow you to isolate individual muscles

This reason is useful for many individuals, especially those who are recovering from an injury, want to strengthen a weaker muscle, or want to maximize their physique.

Machines are designed to isolate muscles in a way that is often difficult to replicate with free weights. Let’s use the soleus muscle as an example. The soleus can be trained without having access to a machine, but a machine makes the process much easier to keep the ideal bent knee position and makes progression from week to week easier without having to hold a dumbbell and balance. This machine is helpful to anyone who has suffered a lower limb injury or those who have running as a part of their sport or exercise program.

Seated Calf Raise

We have an article dedicated to the soleus muscle that you can read here!

Machines have long played a role in the programming of bodybuilders who often want direct work for muscles like the biceps, triceps, quadriceps, and hamstrings. However, this type of isolation can benefit athletes as well. Well known track and field coaches, like Dan Pfaff and Boo Schexnayder, are well known for employing “bodybuilding” type training with their athletes as a form of restorative training. Since the “bodybuilding” training is focused on isolation muscles, the coaches set up the training in a way where it’s not adding more fatigue to an athlete as compared to adding more compound, free weight movements.

READ: THE MYTH OF ‘BAD’ EXERCISES’

debunking bad exercises the prehab guys use machines in training program

 

 

3. Machines allow you to change the resistance profile of an exercise

This reason is helpful for those who have more experience with training or want to maximize their physique. Resistance profiles are the changes in torque as they occur throughout a movement, meaning it’s heavier in one range versus lighter in another range. Since free weights always have the same line of force thanks to gravity, its hard to change resistance profiles unless you are adding bands or chains to a free weight exercise.

With some machines or altering positions on a machine, you can change the difficulty in the beginning, middle, or end range position. Changing resistance profiles benefits those who may be weaker in one portion of a movement than another. If I’m working with a client who is recently overcoming an injury like a hamstring and he has pain in certain parts of the movement, I can still have the client perform a leg curl on a machine and set the load to be harder where they are stronger, and deload them where they are weaker. The client is still able to train the hamstrings and as they get stronger, we change the loading on the machine to be harder where they are weaker.

For those looking to maximize their physique, changing resistance profiles and having the proper set up can target specific areas of the muscle fibers. In this video below, I am performing a half kneeling pulldown to target the illiac lat fibers which attach to the top of the pelvis. Zeroing in on specific areas of the muscle fibers can lead to a more well rounded physique, which can be difficult to achieve with the same specificity when utilizing free weights.

Half Kneeling Lat Pulldown

 

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Closing Thoughts

It’s important to remember you don’t have to choose one method of training. If you only have free weights available to you, that’s great and you can complete a well rounded program without machines. However, if machines are available to you, remember they help to fill in the gaps that free weights can’t accomplish. Providing greater stability can be useful for beginners learning how to lift and it can also challenge the more experienced trainee who needs to push close to failure. Isolating individual muscles can be useful throughout a rehab process, or those who need more direct work for a specific muscle. Changing resistance profiles on an exercise can change how the load is transferred during a movement, as well as bias specific divisions of muscle fibers. Training with free weights alone does not make it easy to accomplish these things, which is why machines are the perfect complement to free weights and should be included in your training program.

 

Learn How To Train For Longevity!

fitness gym program use machines in training programFitness is not about using such a high intensity that you are unable to get off the floor afterwards. We are all about hard work, however we want to make sure you are able to workout across the lifespan both safely and effectively. The number one reason why people no longer participate in an exercise program is due to injury, let’s prove that statistic incorrect by using a fitness program with intended goals of getting you in shape while avoiding injury! To do so, the first 4 weeks is meant to load your tissues to create a movement base this ready to take on the next 8 weeks. Let’s also make sure that we are not just addressing the physical you but are helping you become healthier by giving you methods to decrease your internal load via positive self talk and gratitude practices.

 

References

  1. Volpi, E., Nazemi, R., & Fujita, S. (2004). Muscle tissue changes with aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 7(4), 405–410. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.mco.0000134362.76653.b2

 

About The Author

Ryan Nosak, MS, CSCS, SCCC

[P]Rehab Writer & Content Creator

ryan nosak the prehab guysRyan was born and raised in Throop, Pennsylvania and he has worked in the world of fitness since he was 15 years old. Ryan realized he had a deep affinity for strength training and how it can alter the human mind, body, and spirit. He began his coaching career in high school by coaching his friends through strength training sessions, which inspired him to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.

Ryan spent 10 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach with stops along the way at Penn State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Robert Morris, Charlotte, and DePaul. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and operates his own training practice, RyNo Strength, out of Studio DelCorpo in Chicago, IL. He specializes in weight loss, body composition, strength, and sports performance training programs.

Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from Penn State and a Master’s in Sport Management from Western Carolina University. In his free time, Ryan enjoys training for bodybuilding, eating at the amazing restaurants in Chicago, and spending time with his wife and dog.

 

 

 

Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.

About the author : Ryan Nosak MS, CSCS, SCCC

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