Machines are ideal for beginners, because they’re really safe. If you can’t muster the strength to finish an exercise, you don’t have to worry about dropping a bar on your chest.
They require little coordination; they basically hold your body in position and guide you through the motion. Consider the shoulder press machine. You simply sit in a chair and push the handles up – all of your effort goes into lifting those handles.
On the other hand, if you’re shoulder pressing with a barbell, you not only have to press the bar up but also have to keep it balanced and steady. Initially, your arms will wobble back and forth.
Even after you get the hang of it, the exercise always requires a certain amount of balance and coordination. Keep in mind, though, that machines don’t guarantee good form while exercising, particularly if you use too much weight or don’t adjust the seat properly.
Machines are also helpful for isolating a particular muscle group. “Isolating” means that you are trying to zero in on one muscle rather than getting several muscles into the act. This is helpful if you’re trying to correct a specific weakness.
For instance, if your hamstrings (rear thigh muscles) are underdeveloped, you can use a machine that holds your whole body still while you bend your legs to target your hamstrings. With free weights, you generally can’t strengthen your hamstrings without working your front thigh and butt muscles, too.
Finally, machines let you get in a quick workout. If your gym has 10 or 12 machines arranged in a circuit, you can move from one right to the other, exercising your whole body in less than 20 minutes. A circuit simply means that the machines are arranged in a row or a circle in the order that you’re supposed to use them. Typically, machines that work your larger muscle groups (chest, back, butt, and thighs) come before machines that work your shoulders and arms.
Some Reasons Why Machines May Not Be Ideal
You might want to stick to machines initially, but plan to mix in some free weights after a month or two of working out two or three days a week. Machine circuits get pretty boring – for you and your muscles. You need to stimulate your muscles with at least occasional changes in your workout. Typically, a gym has only two or three machines for each muscle group; with free weights, you can strengthen each muscle with dozens of exercises.
Realize, too, that every weight machine won’t fit every body. Most machines are designed for people of average height, so if you’re shorter than 5-foot-4 or taller than 6-foot-2, you might not be able to adjust the seat to fit your body. Manufacturers have tried to get around the height problems by offering a variety of pads to sit on or stick behind you, but they don’t work for everyone.
Another drawback of machines is that they isolate each muscle group. We know we said this was an advantage, but it’s also a flaw. Because you rarely isolate your muscles in everyday life, some experts believe it doesn’t make sense to train them that way in the gym.
These experts speculate that if muscles become used to working as separate entities, they stop cooperating with one other to the extent they should – a situation that might set you up for injuries.
For instance, consider the lying leg curl, a popular hamstring machine. You lie flat on your stomach and then bend your knees until your heels approach your rear end.
This exercise does a nice job of focusing on your hamstrings, but when in real life do you lie on your stomach and kick yourself in the butt? Some experts believe you’re better off strengthening your hamstrings with exercises such as squatting, a motion you use often in daily life, like when you pick up a heavy box.
Did you like this article? Then you'll really want to sign up for my newsletter. It's delivered several times a week and packed with science news and analysis. Subscibe Here.