Resistance machines can be found in nearly every gym around the world.
People use them every day.
The question is….
Are they effective in building muscle?
Or do they just make you feel like you’re getting a good workout and not really doing much?
Like most things in life and the fitness world.
It depends on several factors.
What machines your using, how your using them, how often your using them and so on.
Here’s what I’m going to cover:
- The good in using resistance machines
- The Bad in using resistance machines
- How to use resistance machines to build muscle
The Good: Why resistance machines work
1. Muscular Isolation & specificity
Arguably the best thing about using machines for resistance training is the isolation aspect.
If you really want to target a muscle I highly recommend using a resistance machine.
The way they are designed now a days, the range of motion (ROM) is so pegged that if you want to hit just the left upper quadrant of your pec…..There’s a machine for that.
Okay, maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but you get the picture.
It’s very precise.
These engineers have really got these machines working great for muscular specificity and isolation.
When it comes to putting muscle on your frame, muscular isolation plays a very important role.
For this reason alone,
Machines can definitely help target and grow new muscle!
2. Injuries & Rehabilitation
If you recently had an injury or are planning to have one…
Then get familiar with resistance machines.
For many of the reasons on this list, resistance machines are ideal for Rehabilitation from injuries.
Also, if you have a physical limitation using a machine can be a great help.
When you are injured the last thing, you want is;
Fast, uncontrolled or unpredictable movements.
It is very important that you and or your therapist knows exactly where you will begin and end a movement, how fast you will go and what path the muscles will use throughout the movement.
These things are all dialed in on machines.
As you progress through rehabilitation from an injury or surgery you will slowly be introduced to less stable and less predictable movements.
Enter free weights….
But in the beginning of rehab, slow and boring is the name of the game to keep things safe and targeted.
So how does this relate to building muscles??
Everyone who has ever exercised consistently has “injured” themselves in one way or another. Or been excessively sore.
In the case of minor injuries or excessive soreness.
It may not be a bad idea to drop down the intensity for a week by using machines or do a workout that involves both machines and free weights to avoid excessive stress.
3. Controlled ROM
Machines do a great job of isolating muscles as we talked about earlier. They do this because they control the range of motion (ROM) that is allowed and the path you must take.
As a result, resistance machines are much safer to use,
Beginners and or Uncoordinated people
If you are in one of these groups,
Then resistance machines may be the best thing for you, simply to avoid injury and get your body prepared for the possibility of moving on to free weights.
Everyone can become coordinated enough to do at least basic free weight movements. Using the machines will help your joints and muscles prepare.
4. Overloading Muscles
Even though it is perfectly possible to overload yourself with free weights and a good spotter…..
It’s not nearly as safe.
When overloading with resistance machines you can really pack on the weight. It’s easy to get yourself in position and start moving.
When you fail;
No big deal! The weights are already fully supported by the machine. Your spotter doesn’t hurt themselves trying to save you and everyone wins!
And here’s a fun fact;
You will always be stronger on a resistance machine then on free weights (1).
If you can bench 315lbs for 3 reps on a flat bench press you can probably get 365lbs or so on a smith machine and…
You’ll likely be able to put up near 400lbs on a Hammer Strength type chest press.
How about that for quick results!
Tip for quick gains!
If you really want to make some gains on your squat. Try doing this for the next few weeks;
At the end of your leg workout,
Load up a leg press machine and do as heavy as possible for 3-6 reps, 4-5 sets.
Then go and burnout on the leg extension and leg curl machines.
Return to squatting after those three weeks (and plenty of rest time) and see how much your squat improved.
5. Time Efficiency & Effort
Using resistance machines will save you time in the gym.
Doing a circuit on machines is a quick way to get in a good workout. Likely this will not be a good way to see muscle growth, but it will get you sweating and in & out in a short time.
Ever have a day when you just feel like shit?
You still go to the gym anyway, but you have very little desire to do anything?
On those days you’re more likely to get injured, and that would suck.
Using the machines will be safer, it will take far less effort as you’re not loading and unloading plates (assuming selector pins) and you don’t have to use your core much for stability, further decreasing risk of injury.
Well if it hasn’t been drilled home enough already…..
Machines are safer.
Although safety first does not always equal fun or results;
It does mean you live to lift another day, and that’s most important to me.
If you have an injury, you’re having an “off” day, or just want an easier workout day, try jumping on the machines to assure you don’t get hurt!
Plus machines are where the women tend to be in the gym so…..
The Bad: Why resistance machines suck
Well I think this should be the first strike for machines….
Using free weights may actually produce acutely higher testosterone levels when compared to training with machines (2).
And we all know more testosterone is a great thing when trying to build muscles!
However, being a HUGE fan of free weights it is unfortunate that I must confess…..
Research shows there is….
Wait for it….
No significant difference in the actual gains you can make from machine training compared to free weights (2, 3).
The only real difference is the functionality.
Which brings us to point number two;
2. Muscular Isolation/Lack of Functionality
All though muscular isolation can be a great thing….
It can also be a negative thing.
When you are doing something like bodybuilding or rehabilitation and trying to develop a specific muscle, or limit ROM muscular isolation is a great thing!
If you are looking to have any type of functional use from those muscles your developing, then muscular isolation can be a bad thing.
As you train a muscle using free weights you have to activate lots of other muscles to support that movement.
Take a standing bicep curl for example,
As you go to perform your curl, your body first activates the core muscles, then the surrounding musculature that supports your core, like your leg muscles and larger trunk muscles. If you are using proper form, then your entire shoulder girdle becomes active to keep your arm close to your side. And then the arm can move through its ROM.
All that for a simple bicep curl. It’s basically a whole-body workout!
One could argue most free weight exercises are whole-body stabilization exercises.
And that transfers over to real life movements!
Not to mention how much your nervous system is stimulated to do all of that stabilizing and moving at once.
That’s taxing in and of itself!
And likely plays into why resistance training actually makes you smarter (4)!
Whereas when using a machine, most of the stabilization is done for you. Hence the isolation and extreme muscular focus.
So using machines WILL get you the muscles, but they won’t have as much functional integration via the nervous system.
And that means,
Not as functional to life. See below.
3. Abnormal ROM – Non-Functional
As we just talked about above, on a machine there is less body stabilization needed for exercises then on free weights;
That also means the ROM changes a bit and becomes less life specific or functional.
All this really means is,
Although your developing say your pectoralis major (Pecs) muscles and you may be strong in doing a machine press, it won’t have much functional conversion.
So, your pecs would be bigger & stronger,
but it wouldn’t translate to using them for something functional like pushing someone away or throwing a punch…..
Not nearly as well as doing a free weight chest press, or especially a dumbbell free weight press would translate.
Like I talked about in the functional section;
That stabilization piece and entire body use throughout a movement is exactly what a “real life” scenario would require.
You simply can’t get that on a machine.
Ever see a hockey player run into another and just bounce off?
That guy who was the “wall” is stabilized through his entire body….Free weights.
The guy who tried to hit him and bounced off is not stable….He used machines…..Maybe.
You get the point.
4. Not One Size Fits All
The average height, average weight male is the person most likely to be found in a gym.
As a result;
Most machines are designed for that person.
If you fall outside of the average male size range,
That is 5 feet and 9.5 inches tall….You aren’t going to fit great.
Of course, all of the machines have a great array of adjustments and fancy knobs, etc, but no position is as ideal as that height.
Free weights on the other hand;
They are a true one size fits all!
5. Lack Variety
There is a huge variety of machines out there. Probably one for nearly every muscle on your body if you look hard enough.
What you will find in most gyms is a limited array of machines, one for each major muscle group and maybe two for chest and back.
Oh, and probably three for abs! Ha!
You can create a really good workout from this…..
If your goal is to do a circuit workout and not hit any specific muscle group too hard. And not really stimulate any growth.
Not my goal!
If you want to stimulate strength & growth;
You need several different movements for each muscle group. You need several different angles to change ROM and so on.
People who vary their exercise programs will see better strength gain then those who do the same movements time and time again (5).
Machines will give you one ROM and one exercise.
With free weights there is an unlimited possibility of angles, paths of motion and variations of exercises to keep your muscles busy and working hard for decades.
6. Not for the home….Kinda
The same reason you don’t see many machines in homes is the same reason there isn’t a ton of variety in gyms.
Now there are some exceptions;
Machines like a Bowflex and other multi-station in-home machines are “affordable” and offer a variety of different exercises.
Just like all the other negatives above. These “in-home multi-station gyms” usually only have one position per muscle group and have a restricted or altered ROM and lack functionality.
Hop on any re-sale site or app and search for free weights.
For under $1,000 (far cheaper than a multi-station machine) you can have yourself an amazing in-home, fully functional gym with no limitation on how many exercises and ways to perform them.
For under $500 you can likely find a bench, adjustable dumbbells, a barbell and some plates. That will get you rockin and growin for sure!
It’s typically the squat rack/cage that will cost a little more.
Building Muscle with Resistance Machines:
You’re likely on this site and reading this article because you care about making gains in the gym and don’t want to waste time on ineffective exercise modalities.
So, let’s chat about how to use resistance machines properly to build muscles!
Here is what to consider:
1. Which machines to use
When going for gains the machines you pick to use are very important.
Every machine has a purpose depending on your goals.
What phase of your program are you in?
If you’re in a bulking phase, then you may want to avoid machines for smaller muscle groups like the inner and outer thigh machines.
If your prepping for a bodybuilding competition you may want to spend some time on those machines isolating those muscles and getting them to “pop”.
Plate loaded machines tend to be better for building muscle.
That’s just the nature of it.
Companies that make selector pin machines usually have a “low” limit to the weight stacks and let’s face it. You’re just too strong for that shit.
The plate loaded machines’ only limitation is how long the peg is. Usually you can fit plenty or plates to max yourself out on those machines.
Another clue on this is where they are located in the gym…
The plate loaded machines tend to be near the free weights.
The pin selector machines tend to be off in their own area for “privacy” from all the meatheads.
Yes. You and me are considered “meatheads”.
2. How often to use resistance machines
Regardless of the phase you are in with your exercise program, machines will have a place.
All phases of a quality exercise program need variety and all exercises programs have low intensity days or weeks.
This provides two excellent opportunities to use resistance machines.
Personally, I like to mix in one cycle of ALL machine work about once every four weeks to every program I’m doing.
Week 1: All Barbell
Week 2: All Dumbbell
Week 3: All Machines
Week 4: All kettlebell & mixture
That’s one simple suggestion to get some variety in your training program and incorporate machines.
You can also use them at the end of a training session to do “burnout” sets.
1. Any lifting is better than no lifting
2.Machines and free weights will both help pack on muscle
- And a quality exercise program will use both
3.Free weights are more functional
4.Machines are safer
Dr. Dave Hopper
1. Specificity of training modalities on upper-body one repetition maximum performance:free weights vs. hammer strength equipment.
Lyons TS, McLester JR, Arnett SW, Thoma MJ.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Nov;24(11):2984-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e726c6.
2. The Effects of Training with Free Weights or Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Testosterone and Cortisol Levels
Thesis from University of Saskatchewan, 2008
3. Carpinelli, Ralph. (2017). A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE NATIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING ASSOCIATION’S OPINION THAT FREE WEIGHTS ARE SUPERIOR TO MACHINES FOR INCREASING MUSCULAR STRENGTH AND POWER. Med Sport Pract. 18. 21-39.
4. Mediation of CognitiveFunction Improvements by Strength Gains After Resistance Training in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment: Outcomes of the Study of Mental and Resistance Training.
Mavros Y, Gates N, Wilson GC, Jain N, Meiklejohn J, Brodaty H, Wen W, Singh N, Baune BT, Suo C, Baker MK, Foroughi N, Wang Y, Sachdev PS, Valenzuela M, Fiatarone Singh MA.
J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017 Mar;65(3):550-559. doi: 10.1111/jgs.14542. Epub 2016 Oct 24.
5. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.
Fonseca RM, Roschel H, Tricoli V, de Souza EO, Wilson JM, Laurentino GC, Aihara AY, de Souza Leão AR, Ugrinowitsch C.
J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000539.