Exercise machines may take up a lot of real estate on the gym floor, but if you look at them and think WTF, you’re not alone. And if you decide to ignore them completely and spend quality time with dumbbells instead, you’re probably not missing out. “I’ve mainly been using my bodyweight and dumbbells to strength train for years,” explains Derek DeGrazio, partner and lead trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp Miami. Just because these machines are around (and you see some people using them) doesn’t mean they’re essential to accomplishing your fitness goal.
What machines are we talking about? Think squat rack, leg extension machine, biceps curl machine, and other strength machines you see at the gym. This type of equipment can be useful for specific muscle isolation exercises, DeGrazio explains, but that can limit their effectiveness—plus there’s an added risk for injury if you’re not using them correctly. (It’s important to note that we’re not talking cardio machines such as treadmills, rowers, and ellipticals, which are great for logging some heart-rate-rising cardio minutes.)
When it comes to working on your strength gains, exercises that utilize just your bodyweight, free weights like barbells and dumbbells that aren’t attached to a machine, or other minimal workout tools (like resistance bands or sliding disks) have a leg up on machines in a few ways. Here, top trainers explain why operating heavy machinery at the gym may not always be the most efficient way to meet your goals.
EXERCISE MACHINES TYPICALLY ONLY WORK ONE OR TWO MUSCLE GROUPS AT A TIME.
“Machines have their place [in your fitness program], but they take away stabilization challenges,” explains Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., author of Operation Bikini Body. Often this means the muscles of your core aren’t working as hard while training. For example, if you’re doing a standing bicep curl, your core and leg muscles are also engaged as they help to stabilize your body in the upright position while you’re completing the movement. When you’re doing a seated bicep curl on a machine, you only need to engage your biceps, she explains.
A lot of our movement stems from having a supportive core, explains DeGrazio, and machines often don’t do much to make these muscles stronger.
“Certain machines place you in a fixed position that doesn’t truly mimic a functional movement pattern,” Davis adds. Functional training (for instance, deadlifting a loaded barbell and performing heavy carries) uses your muscles in ways you strain them in day-to-day life, which helps reduce the risk of injury during non-gym activities, such as lifting groceries and carrying them upstairs.
Machines also let the rest of your muscles relax while you focus on a specific area. “Bodyweight exercises recruit more muscle groups,” explains Davis. Recruiting more muscle groups requires you to exert more energy, so you’ll burn more calories during your workout (plus, over time, increasing your muscle mass gives your basal metabolic rate a boost so you burn more calories at rest). Compound moves are your best bet for this (as opposed to isolation exercises) because they deliberately recruit multiple muscle groups, and most machines don’t offer a compound movement pattern.
MACHINES DON’T FIT EVERY BODY PERFECTLY, WHICH CAN INCREASE THE RISK OF INJURY.
“A lot of machines have pictures showing you what to do, but they’re not always clear enough to show you what muscles you should be using,” says DeGrazio. “If we’re focused on the wrong muscle groups with these machines, we can put our entire body in a precarious situation.” This means you’ll be setting your body up for potential injury. And even if you don’t get hurt, if you’re not using the muscles the machine is designed for, you won’t get the same results as you would if you’d used it correctly.
Part of the problem is that machines aren’t as accommodating to varying body sizes as free weight and bodyweight exercises. Range of motion is not a one-size-fits-all thing—you might find that one machine limits your ability to fully execute a move, while another forces you to extend beyond what’s comfortable or safe for your body. Newer machines tend to be more adjustable than older ones, but if you don’t know the right way to set it up, you may end up doing the exercise improperly, risking a joint injury, DeGrazio warns. Of course, all exercise has inherent risk (especially if you’re not using proper form), but adding in large equipment can up your chances of getting hurt when it’s not used properly.
To make things even more complicated, each machine has best practices when it comes to proper form. Remembering everything can be tricky.
EXERCISE MACHINES CAN HAVE A PLACE IN SOME FITNESS ROUTINES, BUT YOU DON’T NEED THEM TO SEE STRENGTH GAINS.
All machines are not created equal. “There are many free-motion machines popping up in gyms these days,” explains Davis. These are machines that don’t restrict your range of motion. Take a cable machine, for example, which is a mainstay in most gyms. “Most variations of cable machines can accommodate many different heights and individual biomechanical considerations so they are great machines to get comfortable with.”
If you don’t know how to use these or other machines correctly, ignorance really is bliss. Of course, they can have a place in some fitness routines—for example, if you’re coming back from injury and can’t support your own bodyweight safely yet, or you’re trying to build strength in one specific muscle group, explains Davis—but under normal circumstances you’ll be just fine avoiding them. And if you do want to try one out? Ask a gym staff member how to use it properly, she suggests.
No matter what you’re doing, it’s important to be smart and safe with your workouts (while getting that burn going, too). “It’s all about being able to challenge the muscles and push your body to the limit. Machines can sometimes be helpful but they’re not necessary,” says DeGrazio. Bottom line? Working up a sweat with bodyweight moves and free weights is more than enough.
HERE ARE 3 AMAZING MACHINE-FREE WORKOUTS TO TRY (BONUS: THEY’RE ALL JUST 10 MINUTES LONG).
- This routine puts your entire body to work with just three moves.
- This lower-body workout is perfect for your next legs day.
- An abs workout without a single crunch or plank? We’re in.