There’s a reason most men default to the machine room the second they step in the gym. You can shift an ego-massaging amount of weight, the instructions are taped to the side, and you don’t have to rub mismatched shoulders with the hulking guys in the free weights section.
But despite gobbling up most of your gym’s space, weight machines only offer a fraction of its benefits. “Machines work in a fixed pattern,” says Leo Savage, personal trainer at London’s Third Space gym. “But if you do something like the bench press, the bar can move around, so you need other muscles, and ligaments and tendons around the muscle, to stabilise the bar.” And the more muscles you’re working, the quicker you’ll see results.
If you’re brand new to the gym then machines offer an ideal way to learn movement patterns. But once you’re using them comfortably, shifting to unbalanced loads will make your sweat sessions more productive. “It’s like training with stabilisers on,” says Savage. “You still want to ride your bike in the same way once they’re off, but you have to work harder to make sure that you do.” Here’s how to get in the saddle.
You’re Doing: Machine Chest Press
Switch To: Press-Ups
The chest press is a deceitful machine. Most men load too much weight then cheat their way to heavy lifts. Impressive now, but working the right muscles in the wrong way creates imbalances that can lead to injury. Once you step away from the machine’s fixed plane of movement, you’ll discover poor form translates to real world weakness. So don’t step straight to the barbell bench press, lest you load up what you think is your working weight and immediately get pinned beneath it.
Press-ups train the bench press movement pattern without the embarrassment. “Focus on keeping your body in a straight line and your core engaged,” says Savage. The machine only works your chest, but free and bodyweight exercises demand a concrete core to keep your body in the right position to lift.
And don’t be tempted to race. “Slower movements recruit more muscle fibres,” adds Savage. “You’ll feel it all across your chest.” That means more growth, in less time.
How To Do It
Lie face down, your body supported on your palms and toes. Engage your core to keep your back straight – your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your heels.
Slowly bend your arms until your chest almost touches the ground, then drive back up explosively. Repeat.
You’re Doing: Machine Leg Press
Switch To: Goblet Squat
The leg press is designed to emulate the daddy of all gym moves, the barbell squat. But unlike the free weight version, it doesn’t challenge your core. Which means you can move more weight, but don’t get the total body workout of its much bigger brother.
But before you step in the squat cage, you should train the movement with a version that works your abs.
“The goblet squat forces you to engage your core to stop folding forward,” says Savage. “The weight helps you squat lower as well.” The deeper you squat, the more muscle fibres you recruit, to spike the hormones that make them grow.
How To Do It
Grab a kettlebell or a dumbbell and hold it with both hands, in front of your chest. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes rotated slightly outwards. Slowly push your hips back and, keeping your chest up and shoulders back, sink down into a squat.
Keep your weight on your heels as you lower your body, pause briefly at the bottom of the movement, then drive explosively back up to standing. Lower slowly and repeat.
You’re Doing: Machine Bicep Curl
Switch To: Seated Dumbbell Curl
The king of the vanity exercises, machine bicep curl is where proper form goes to die. Determined to move as many weight plates as possible, guys lift with everything from shoulders to lower back, mistaking effort for effect.
“The dumbbell curl is an isolation exercise,” says Savage. “So it should only work your biceps.” Less is much more.
The seated dumbbell curl takes other muscles out of the equation by ensuring your biceps carry the entire load. You’ll have to take an ego hit and lift lighter weights than you’re used to. “Think, if no one else was in the gym, how would I lift?” says Savage. A dose of humility means turbocharged results.
How To Do It
Set a bench so the backrest is close to vertical. Sit down with a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides, palms facing the bench. Curl the weight up, rotating your hands as you move the weight so they finish facing your shoulders.
Your elbow and upper arm should stay locked throughout the move to ensure your biceps lift the load. If you’re swinging, you’re cheating. Slowly lower the weight and repeat.
You’re Doing: Lat Pull-Down Machine
Switch To: Wide Grip Pull-Ups
There’s no purer test of strength than lifting your entire body over something. That’s because it’s hard. The lat pull-down machine isn’t the way to build up to a bodyweight pull-up, because you’re only moving the weight in one plane.
“You need to build the core strength to hold your body in the right position,” says Savage. The pull-up targets the big lat muscles in your back, which also means you’re stronger – and more stable – in other big lifts like the squat and deadlift.
Timing, however, is key. “In basic terms, muscle grows when it tears and then repairs itself,” says Savage. And it’s the lowering phase that puts the fibres under most strain. So don’t let gravity do the work. “Hold yourself at the top and take three or four seconds to go back down,” says Savage.
If you’re not strong enough for pull-ups yet, build up by stepping into the top position, then holding yourself at the top for as long as possible.
How To Do It
Grab the handles of a pull-up station with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forwards. Starting with a dead hang – with your arms completely straight – squeeze your lats and biceps to pull your chest above your hands. Engage your core and your glutes to hold your body in position as your lift.
Hold briefly at the top, then lower yourself slowly to a dead hang and repeat. “If you’re struggling, wrap a resistance band around the bars and put your feet in,” says Savage.
You’re Doing: Machine Row
Switch To: Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Rowing also hits your big back muscles, but putting the pin too low in the machine destroys most men’s form. The shoulder shrug, their backs round, and even though they’re lifting impressive numbers, it’s a recipe for a month on the chiropractor’s table.
“You need to focus on keeping your shoulders down,” says Savage. Single-arm rows let you hone that form to target each lat individually and offer a bigger range of movement, because the bar isn’t hitting your stomach.
Not only that, because you’re loading each side individually, unlike a machine, your core muscles need to work overtime to keep your body in the right position.
How To Do It
Grab a dumbbell and set it on the floor next to a flat bench. Put your left palm and left knee flat on the bench, so your torso is parallel to the floor. Engage your core to keep your back straight and, with your other hand, row the dumbbell to your side.
Push your shoulder down and back to feel the burn in your lats. Pause, then slowly lower. Repeat all reps on one side, then swap arms.