With the commercialization of the fitness industry, gyms along with fitness centers, and even hotels have flooded their floors with fancy machines that contort your body in all sorts of unholy ways promising the body of a lifetime. The sad reality is while most of these machines promise “safe” alternatives to free weights, they rob you of the stability, balance, and lasting strength their predecessors provide.
So the premise that you should start on machines and work your way to the daunting and intimidating free weight section is total garbage. If you continuously train on these machines that do not place your stabilizers under the proper stress, you will never build an underlying foundation of strength needed to lift free weights and properly move your body.
Thus, when a machine trained individual first performs a back squat outside the safety of the smith machine, their core collapses, shoulders round, their low back is ready to spit discs all across the gym floor, and they resemble a mushy scoop of mashed potatoes with a bar on their back.
Now not all machines are evil; I realize this. However, even in such cases as the effective rowing machine, it would still be more beneficial physically, mentally, and spiritually to be on the water, rowing my way through the current. Know that I am not out to rid gyms of all machines, but I would like to see more people opt for these healthier alternatives.
Without further ado, here are the five machines I would never allow in my gym with their alternatives.
1) Smith Machine
This machine was invented in the 1950s as a safety precaution for those lifting with barbells. You’ll find most people using them today for bench press, squats, and deadlifts.
The Problem: The Smith machine moves the bar along a predetermined path for you. Even the ones that now allow a more free range of motion; they do not fully activate your stabilizers in your core, shoulders, and back when performing these exercises. These bars are still locked in place horizontally. They even can lead to compensation for poor form or put your body in an improper position because of this predetermined pathway.
The Alternatives: The dumbbell bench still provides safety in that you can drop the weights at any time and builds unilateral strength. Instead of Smith machine squats, try under a barbell with a spotter when needed, or single leg squats, as these can also be performed with assistance. Lastly for the deadlift, there is no better version than the barbell on the floor, but single leg Romanian deadlifts (RDL) are an appropriate way to build core, gluteal, and lower back strength.
2) Leg Extension Machine
The leg extension machine is cringe-worthy. Friends don’t let friends leg extend.
The Problem: The leg extension machine places your ankles directly beneath you as you lean back in the chair. Think to yourself, is this ever a position I’ve been in before with load on my feet? Is it a position that I would like to find myself in outside of this contraption? Most likely the answer is No.
The placement of your feet and ankles positions your knees at an angle of high torque with an initial movement under load. Your knees are just hanging out there unprotected and tense just asking to explode. The pressure within the knee cap is at its highest at this moment, and the machine makes you pass through this point during extension and when returning that weight.
The Alternative: A healthy way to work leg extension while under load would be to perform weighted step-ups either with a bar on your back or dumbbells in your hand.
3) Pec Deck
Every guy’s favorite piece of exercise equipment, right? Who doesn’t love chest days full of bench press followed by high reps on the pec deck that leave you feeling vascular and pumped?
The Problem: The pec deck again allows for more range of motion than is safe. It places your hands behind your head, with load, as your shoulder take all the force and under an undue amount of stress and pressure as you begin this exercise. Even if this range of motion flaw is accounted for, your core and the rest of your pectorals are not working fully. And if the two arms of the machine work together instead of separately, this could lead to lopsided muscles as the stronger one compensates and does more of the work.
The Alternative: Perform the chest fly on a bench with dumbbells in hand or while standing at a cable machine. These both will provide a better stimulus for you pecs, stabilizers, and leave the pressure off the shoulder joint. Not to mention your pecs will grow symmetrically!
4) Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise I’ll admit used to be a favorite of mine. I love working calves, and it’s a great feeling to load out the machine and rep out calf raises like you invented the move.
The Problem: However, I’ve gained some wisdom over the years from fighting off back pain, and that’s something I’d like to keep at a minimal. See the issue is not with the calf raise exercise itself, but where the load is placed. With all that weight directly on your shoulders, your spine is compressed from your shoulders all the way to the floor. This could easily lead to some spinal imbalance and back pain.
The Alternative: Resort to higher rep body weight calf raises, single leg calf raises, or place dumbbells in your hand. This will distribute the weight across your upper body and core with no spinal compression.
5) Seated Rotating Ab machine
Another gym rat favorite. Some of the longest lines I see at the gym are for these machines!
The Problem: The rotating ab machine is supposed to allow you to work your oblique abdominals against resistance. I would argue that your core was built to withstand movement, not try and create it. The twisting motion also places your lower back and spine in an unfortunate position which will lead you directly to the chiropractor.
The Alternative: Give side planks a try in 45 second – 1-minute intervals. You can also bring your free hand underneath your torso and rotate if you insist on having the rotation. This allows for the proper and safe rotational degree about the spine while building strength and without risking injury.
As you can see, if you were to spend a few hours in the gym every week with the majority of your time spent on these machines, you could find yourself spending that much more time and money at the doctor’s office.
Agree? Disagree? Comments and questions welcomed below!