If you think that toying with weight machines is the gym equivalent of a grown man driving a car with L-plates, you’re misinformed, champ. There is more than one reason why those bolted-down machines in your gym are a fixture in the workout regimens of professional bodybuilders and Olympic champions. Misguided gym snobbery could be denying you access to powerful tools that can help you build cyborg strength and a set of alloy abs to go with it.
Even before you consider the unique muscle-building capacities of machines, think about another valuable commodity: time. While the metal-head hordes clang iron in the weights room, machines often stand by, unused. From now on, consider them your private workout facilities. Instead of wrestling with bars and plates, machines allow you to switch loads with the simple tweak of a lever, so you can power through workouts. You don’t need to wait around for a spotter and you’ll never waste time searching for the missing 16-kilogram dumbbell.
In physiological terms, machines are excellent for forging Man of Steel strength and size. You will always move more weight on a leg press machine than you can squat with a barbell. That’s because free weights require your muscles to multitask. But on a machine, those extra challenges – coordination, proprioception – are removed. Working along a fixed plane, you can push your muscles harder and crank through fatigue without fear of your form derailing. For that reason, machines are a great way to overload your muscles with those short sets of maximal effort that will trigger the hypertrophy you crave.
If your goals are more aesthetic, machines make it easy to assemble your ideal physique. Bodybuilders do machine biceps curls, calf raises and triceps extensions to target specific muscles they want to pump up. Remember that muscles don’t know if you are using a machine or a free weight, and any resistance training will trigger a hormonal response, which enhances muscle growth. Muscles simply respond to force and tension. So the heavier you lift, the bigger they will grow.
Machines are much more versatile than you may realise, too. On a leg-press machine you can do double-leg presses, switch to single-leg presses, move your feet wider to work your glutes, move them narrower to hit your quads or even do straight-leg calf raises. And the solid, safe movement patterns of machines make them perfect for eccentric training (lowering the weight slowly for 10 seconds on each rep adds extra tension and is proven to build more size into your muscles). Elite Olympic athletes even use machines for power training – like leg-press throws, where they allow the plate to release 5-10 centimetres off their feet – but these are advanced techniques, best done with a trainer, if you want to avoid ending up on YouTube.
This doesn’t mean you should throw free weights out the window. (NB: never throw free weights out the window!) All the science shows they are superior for athletic performance. And without the balance and coordination they develop, you’d be useless in any sport. But embrace fixed weights and you can supercharge your workout. After all, machines are built to make life easier, so why not let them?
The Devil’s in the Details
1/ PRESS HERE
Bench machines up your three-rep max by eight per cent against free weights, says the Journal of Strength and Conditioning.
2/ IRON GIANT
The barbell squat may be the king of legs moves, but studies say machine leg presses similarly raise testosterone.
3/ SLOW DOWN
Fixed is safest for eccentric training (3 x 8 reps at 60 per cent 1RM, lowering for 10 seconds) and is shown to speed growth.