For one reason or another, machines get a bad rap with those in the fitness industry. They are scorned for not being “functional”, and are often viewed as a waste of time and energy. They can most certainly become “functional” if your goals are bigger muscles, bringing up weak body parts, rehabbing an injury, or even improving performance in sports. I can attest to the fact that most people I see using machines are doing so haphazardly. Now I’m not going to argue that because you can leg press 1,000 pounds, you will squat anywhere close to that amount. I think people view machines in the wrong light. I see machines as tools to enhance or supplement your training. Machines are not designed for maximal strength, yet more for specified tension on a body part. I don’t think machines should solely be reserved for the bodybuilding crowd. I think there is merit to including them in programming for powerlifters, athletes, general population and everyone in between. Enough of the babbling, here are 5 ways to maximize machines:
1) Drop Sets
A drop set is done by performing a set number of reps, stripping weight, doing more reps, stripping weight and then doing more reps. The number of drop sets can vary however 2-3 drop sets is a solid place to start. This type of high volume work is great for maximizing total volume in a fairly short amount of time. This can be beneficial for those looking to completely fry their muscles. This is a good thing! A typical drop set would look like this:
Go up in weight on the selected exercise until you get a hard 6-10 reps, then drop the weight and do 6-8 reps, drop and do 6-8 again and then finish with a final drop set going to complete failure
Machines that are great for drop sets include the leg press, hammer strength incline press, seated rows, leg curl, leg extension and smith machine
2) Banded Exercises
Adding bands to a given exercise will create more tension throughout the movement. More tension means more muscle growth, and more muscle growth means more strength, size and many times better performance. Attaching bands will give you maximal tension during the lockout portion of the movement, which means you have to work even harder to complete your reps. With a machine, bands can easily be attached to provide overload during the strongest part of the movement. Bands are great when you need to go lighter but still maximize your training. Bands allow you to use less weight on a given exercise while still damaging muscle enough to allow for new growth.
Almost any machine can be used with bands. A few favorites include banded hammer strength presses and leg presses. The extra tension as you lockout provides a crazy feeling in your muscles. You’ve got to be locked in to have a battle with the bands.
3) Improving Weak Body Parts
Who likes weak body parts? I sure know I don’t. Bringing up weak body parts or areas can be a huge benefit for all types of gym goers. The powerlifter needing more quad development to help with squatting can benefit. The bodybuilder needing more detail in his back can benefit. The football player who needs more pressing endurance and stamina can benefit. Even your general clientele at a commercial gym can benefit from improving their weaker areas. For the general clientele, improving a weak area can be especially beneficial if they are lacking strength in the back, erectors, core and hips. Weaknesses in these areas can cause postural issues and long-term negative effects on the body. Machines can help in your quest to bring up weaker areas. Because machines work in a set plane of motion, they work well to stimulate the muscles that are lacking in development. You can specifically target your weaker body parts with machines, employing various techniques. Drop sets, bands, and varying ranges of motion all work well to hit those underdeveloped areas.
4) Varying Positions/Exercises
Many people only use machines as described by the label on the actual machine. You can however get a little creative and use machines in a slightly different way. For example, the assisted chin up machine is great for extra tricep work. Grab a med ball and set it on top of the knee pad. Then perform tricep pushdowns with your hands on top of the med ball, extending the knee pad down to full lockout. This one will blast the triceps and will not only aid in size but also help to keep your elbows healthy by giving them a break from heavy skull crushers or weighted dips. Try different positions on machines as well to feel the muscles working. Sometimes that’s all that is needed!
5) Maximizing Tension
Machines can be great tools when maximizing tension is the goal. You are moving the weight up and down in a fixed plane which is going to keep constant tension on the targeted muscle group. To maximize tension, try coming all the way down on a movement but only to about ¾ lockout. This will ensure constant tension during your entire set and will surely cause a nasty pump. Because you won’t have to rely on the stabilizer muscles as much when using machines, the larger muscle groups can be stimulated more with constant tension. Try some leg presses with the feet fairly narrow and drive the knees towards your chest. Then press up but don’t lock out the knees. These will have your quads on fire!
While machine usage is mostly thought to be a bodybuilding staple, many types of people can benefit from them. Give these tips a try and let me know what you think!