If you love heading to the gym and making your rounds on the exercise machines, you’re not alone. With peak gym season upon us, you might even find yourself lining up for fan favorites like the leg extension machine. But are those big hunks of metal worth the wait — or should you pave your own way with free weights?
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The Pros and Cons of Exercise Machines
First off, machines do offer some great benefits. “Exercise machines are convenient and are generally designed to be user-friendly,” says Cris Dobrosielski, CSCS, owner of Monumental Results in San Diego and author of Going the Distance. They can also help build definition and endurance in muscles, Dobrosielski says.
Going machine-heavy has some drawbacks, though. Depending on your body type (e.g. short or tall), the machine may not fit you correctly, Dobrosielski notes. And unlike free weights, which can move in all three planes of motion, resistance machines are on a fixed axis that will only allow you to move in one or two planes. They also isolate specific muscles, compared to more functional movements (using dumbbells or kettlebells, for instance) that recruit surrounding muscle groups and help fine-tune balance, stability and coordination. Most machines won’t help you improve power (speed plus strength) either, Dobrosielski adds.
So should you ditch exercise machines all together? Not necessarily. But there are a few mistakes to watch out for — and times when stepping off the machine to do an alternative exercise is a better option. Here are seven popular pieces of machinery, and how to better use them to your benefit.
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The 7 Most Common Exercise Machine Mistakes
1. Torso Rotation Machine
The Mistake: It’s all too easy to set this core machine so that you’re not hitting a full range of motion, which will compromise how effective it is. “On your first set, your tissues are not warmed up, so you’re not as limber. However, with movement and an increase in body temperature, you’ll have a natural increase in your range of motion,” says Dobrosielski.
The Fix: On your second and third set, reset the machine to allow yourself to rotate further on each side.
2. Leg Extension Machine
The Mistake: This exercise can put a considerable strain on the knee joint, says Dobrosielski. “It’s common to take reps too fast and extend all the way down so that your heels are almost to your butt, which only stresses your patella and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL),” he adds.
The Fix: If you choose to isolate your quads with the leg extension machine, Dobrosielski recommends dropping into the down position conservatively and slowly and working only the top three to six inches of the move. (You may even feel like you’re not bending down enough, but that’s OK.) A better exercise is box step-ups on a six- to 12-inch box, he says.
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3. Back Extension Machine
The Mistake: Holding a weight while you do it. Also, locking your knee out during the move. “This will take most of your hamstrings out of the exercise and prompt you to work almost exclusively from your lumbar spine,” says Dobrosielski. That can overload your back.
The Fix: Keep a slight bend in your knee to tap into hamstrings. Don’t add weight beyond your body weight. You can also do this move facedown on an exercise ball with your feet up against a wall. This will better recruit your hamstrings, glutes and lower back, he says.
4. Cable Machine Torso Twist
The Mistake: While Dobrosielski is a fan of cable machines, they can restrict your range of motion, preventing further progress.
The Fix: Once you’ve mastered the hay bailer motion and it begins to feel easy, you may need to step away from the machine. Instead, pick up a dumbbell or kettlebell to do the move on your own. “This will make the move more advanced by asking your body to do a bit more of the work,” says Dobrosielski.
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5. Cable Machine Chest Fly
The Mistake: It’s common to start too far away from the machine and position your hands too far behind you. This can damage your shoulder joint, says Dobrosielski.
The Fix: Start with the cables close to your body as you begin the move. During each rep, maintain a moderate bend in your elbows.
6. Bench Press Machine
The Mistake: The bench press machine can also limit your range of motion. “If the back support is set too far back, you limit the depth of the move. You’ll lose a significant amount of chest benefits,” he says.
The Fix: Set the machine so that you get a full range of motion in your arms, meaning you can extend your arms and pull the handles back down by your chest.
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7. Power Tower
The Mistake: For this exercise, you prop yourself up on your forearms and raise your legs for an ab workout (aka hanging leg raises). “These are just OK for ab strength, and they put a tremendous load on your lower back,” says Dobrosielski.
The Fix: Take your core workout to the floor for a modified leg raise, he recommends. Lay on your back, bend knees so feet are off the floor. Press your lower back into the floor to activate abdominal muscles, and slowly drop heels toward the floor (knees should remain at 90 degrees).
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