This article is written for Evolving Wellness by fitness expert Marta Montenegro.
With my background I’ve seen pretty much everything in gym marketing. A very effective gimmick to enlist new members consists of showcasing state-of-the-art strength machines that promise to shorten your workout time, avoid injuries and make the overall experience easier than dealing with all the clunky, dull metal of your classic dumbbells and barbells.
Granted, strength machines are easier to use, perhaps are safer than free weights, and some say do a good job targeting a muscle group, particularly in single-joint exercises. And they are particularly useful in rehabilitation settings.
I’ll concede they do have a place in your workout, because they may allow you to perform exercises in a plane of motion that can’t be easily emulated with free weights, providing much-needed variety. However, in the mad race to develop more types of equipment, manufacturers have reached a point where some machines are not as effective as free weights because they reduce the stabilizing requirements of lifting.
In our everyday lives, we must exert force by recruiting the prime movers, but we also need to engage the stabilizers and neutralizers. Free weights require us to engage the stabilizers and neutralizers to a greater degree, resulting in applicable results to everyday life. Also, machines often fail to adequately accommodate for differences in physical size, making them uncomfortable, if not downright ineffective for some.
While free weights may require greater coordination and skill, forcing you to become fully familiar with specific exercises to get results, they nevertheless allow for a better range of motion, since they accommodate specific anatomical needs. Free weights can also increase caloric expenditure by requiring you to use more muscles to properly perform each exercise.
For many people a combination of machines and free weights makes sense. But for every machine you don’t want to miss, such as the lat pull-down, there are plenty more that you can easily skip in favor of free weights. Here’s an eye-opening breakdown that will help you achieve a more effective workout.
Hip abduction/ Hip adduction
Once you sit down in this machine, you relax the hip and trunk flexors and extensors. The primary objective of the exercise is to work the inner/outer thighs. That part is fine, but with this machine you will not work as many thigh muscles as when you perform the exercise with free weights, which require the hip extensors and hip flexors to contract to stabilize the hip joint. In addition, using free weights engages the trunk muscles.
On the other hand, many machines provide a range of movement that may be uncomfortable or hard to reach for people with flexibility issues.
Substitute with: Sumo dead lift. You’ll target not just the adductor muscles, but also the glutes, lower back and quadriceps. Or the cable leg raise will let you work the abductor muscles through a greater range of motion.
Seated leg curl
The hamstrings are a two-joint muscle group. They extend at the hip and flex at the knee — but they don’t do both simultaneously. Hamstrings can be developed with hip extension exercises and/or knee flexion exercises. But it‘s very difficult to work out these muscles properly if you’re sitting on top of them.
Also, when you use the seated leg curl machine, you’re emphasizing the lower part of your hammies and not paying enough attention to the upper part.
Substitute with: Dead lifts. This exercise doesn’t just strengthen the glutes and hamstrings (in full), but your lower back as well.
Back extension machines
Your daily activities will place your trunk in positions of lateral flexion, extension and rotation, requiring the use of the lower back muscles. To strengthen the lower back, you will need to perform exercises that let you work in all planes.
We usually spend too much time sitting down, so the last thing we want is to exercise the back in that same position.
Substitute with: Squats, lunges (walking, with rotations, etc.) and dead lifts. If you incorporate these exercises into your regular workout, you won’t need anything else to strengthen your back.
The glutes with the hamstrings are hip extensors. They are activated when we walk, climb stairs or perform any type of movement that makes us extend the legs. The majority of glute machines try to “isolate” the glutes, which can work the glutes (sort of) effectively in the concentric (the lifting) part of the movement.
But as soon as you reach the eccentric part (the lengthening or lowering part of movement), you engage the quadriceps to help control the descent. The glutes are recruited effectively during the concentric phase, but because the first part of the eccentric phase is usually performed rapidly, you don’t get as much eccentric activity of the glutes as compared to squats and lunges.
Substitute with: Lunge and/or squat. Nothing beats these exercises to strengthen your behind and your legs, and help you perform better in any sport.
To work the abs, you want to use flexing and twisting movements of the trunk, but limit assistance from the hip flexors to make the abs work harder. However, when we use machines we are often tempted to use our arms along with our hip flexors to help flex the trunk. The result is we don’t work the abs as much as we would like.
Substitute with: Abdominal curls on the physioball. Use trunk flexion and lateral trunk flexion movements. And do planks and side planks to hit those deep side muscles.
This machine is excellent to add variety to your workout, but why can you perform a 50-pound squat in it and just 20 when using the free-weight rack? The machine doesn’t force you to use some muscles that free weights do, which makes the free-weight exercise more demanding and effective.
Substitute with: Dumbbell or barbell. Whether it‘s an upper or lower-body exercise, free weights will tax other muscles (such as the core) to perform the exercise right, and this will translate to more calories burned and better overall strength.
About the Author
Marta Montenegro is a Venezuelan-born journalist, she is the founder, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning SOBeFiT Magazine. She holds two master’s degrees — one in finance and one in exercise physiology — and is an adjunct professor at Florida International University, where she designed two new courses for the college. She is also a certified fitness trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, and a nutrition fertility lifestyles specialist.