By Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT Men's Fitness
Trainer Q&A: Are Machine-Workouts Dead?
Our expert weighs in on whether machines still deserve a spot on the gym floor, or in your workout routines.
Q: Can I get a full body workout with machines alone?
A: Hang around any gym long enough and you’re bound to hear a rant on machines in comparison to free weights. Still, after doing a quick scan of the gym you’ll likely see many members hopping on machines, preferring the safety of pulleys and hinges versus the freedom of bars and dumbbells. Are free weights really that much more effective that you should ditch the confines of the machine area to venture into the world of muscle, brawn, and the bench press? All signs point to probably. It’s just a matter of being ready.
Machines get a bad rap in the fitness industry labeled as non-functional and a poor option in comparison to total body exercises performed on your feet. In reality, they can be a great addition to any lifting program. By locking you into a specific range of motion, machines can provide some guidance for new lifters unfamiliar with form. Take away freedom of motion and you drastically decrease injury risk. Newer lifters also tend to feel safer and more willing to try machines as opposed to braving the free-weight area and competing with gym veterans for a spot on the bench. Advanced lifters can benefit as well. According to Jon-Erik Kawamoto, head trainer at JK Conditioning, “Machines are great additions to free-weight training especially if you're a bodybuilder or are trying to stimulate muscle hypertrophy. Machines provide a unique training stimulus necessary for stimulating new muscle growth.”
However, restriction of movement can turn out to be a problem down the road. By limiting range of motion, machines ignore individual differences in joint mechanics. Rather than allowing the lifter to move in their preferred pattern, machines force users to a specific angle, which may not be the best for long-term success. With the locked motion, machines also tend to ignore the stabilizers of the joint that provide a foundation when moving around on a daily basis. However, it’s likely not the machine itself but rather the application that causes the problem. Kawamoto acknowledges that injury can occur with both free-weights and machines when exercises are prescribed incorrectly. “Machine or free-weight exercises must be prescribed appropriately to ensure a safe adaptation to training without causing undue stress or injury.”
For all the negatives, machines still have an appropriate place in any routine. Use them in the beginning stages of your program to build some initial strength before moving onto free weights. They can also be utilized at the end of your workout to accumulate some extra volume with a smaller chance for injury. Still, your goal should be to make the bulk of your routine based around free weights with supplemental exercises performed on machines. Focus on programming exercises correctly in order to fully avoid injury.