Years ago, I interviewed professional bodybuilder Milos Sarcev for a story I was writing on machine training. Many, if not all, of the things we discussed back then still hold true today. Namely, if you want to overload a muscle or group of muscles, machines are incredible tools and should be found in every bodybuilder’s routine. Sure, free weights are irreplaceable, but machines should rightfully have their place in your plan as long as you know how to use them to your advantage in conjunction with free-weight training.
Benefits of Machine Training
1) Overload the target muscle. Machines — whether the kind with the weight stack or the plate-loaded variety — don’t require much stabilizer muscle involvement because you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight, which allows you to put maximum focus on the target muscle. This also ensures that you can completely annihilate the target muscle as stabilizers won’t tire out before the target muscle does.
Related: Smith Machine Essentials
2) No Spot, No Problem. Although proper form is always important, you don’t typically need a spotter even when using heavy weights on most machines because the path is already set for you. The main consideration is to make sure you adjust the machine to fit your own height and limb length or you’ll put your joints under unnecessary and awkward stress that could lead to injury.
3) Intensity Rules. Many pin-loaded machines are easy to use with intensity techniques such as drop sets. Simply pull the pin upon failure, go a few plates lighter (roughly 20%) and continue doing reps until you reach failure once again.
4) Don’t Bottom Out. Never let the weight stack touch down between reps, which takes tension off the target muscle. Slow the descent of the weight so that you can smoothly reverse direction without losing tension on the target muscle.
Do It Right: Stand inside the squat press and place your shoulders squarely under the pads. Make sure your feet are flat, with your abs tight, back arched and chest up. Holding the handles, squat down until your thighs approach 90-degree angles, then powerfully press yourself up to the standing position.
Power Pointer: The closest machine version of a squat we’ve seen, you’re essentially leg pressing through the floor.
Lying Leg Curl
Do It Right:Lie facedown on a leg-curl machine and position your Achilles’ tendons below the padded lever, your knees just off the edge of the bench. Make sure your knees are slightly bent in the start. Contract your hams to raise your feet toward your glutes in a strong but deliberate motion, squeezing the muscles at the top, then lower under control.
Power Pointer: Keep your toes pointed and feet aligned; don’t turn your ankles in or out.
Supported T-Bar Row
Do It Right: Place your chest against the pad and grasp the handles with a wide, overhand grip, keeping your knees bent. Allow the bar to hang below you, then pull the handles up as you try and pull your elbows as far behind your body as possible. Squeeze and slowly return to the start.
Power Pointer: Wide-grip back movements are excellent for hitting the upper lats.
Seated Chest Press
Do It Right: Sit squarely on the seat, adjusting its height so that you’re holding the handles just outside your lower pecs. Press to full-arm extension, squeezing your pecs at the top and slowly lower under control.
Power Pointer: Because you can move a ton of weight with this, it’s important to adjust your seat correctly to protect your shoulder joints.
Seated Overhead Press
Do It Right: Sit erect against the backpad, feet spread wide on the floor and grasp the handles with a pronated grip. Press up overhead to full-arm extension and slowly lower.
Power Pointer: With some machines each side works independent from the other, an advantage for determining muscular imbalances.
Triceps Machine Dip
Do It Right: Sit erect strapped into a triceps dip machine. Adjust the seat and the belt. Grasp the handles with a neutral (palms-in) grip and press strongly toward the floor. Keep your chest up and abs tight as you slowly reverse the motion.
Power Pointer: Keep your elbows in tight to the body throughout to maintain emphasis on the triceps.
Do It Right: Place your armpits snugly against the pad and grasp the handles. Curl as high as you can without your elbows leaving the pad, then lower to a point just short of full-arm extension.
Power Pointer: With your arms in front of your torso, you emphasize the short biceps head, which is the part of the arm most visible from the front when flexing your arms.
Do It Right: Sit inside the ab machine with your feet flat on the floor (some ab machines have you supine with your feet anchored). Hold the handles in front of you or you can simply wrap your forearms over the pad, making sure your torso is flush against the pad. Crunch forward all the way, allowing your lower back to round. Resist the weight as you return to the start.
Power Pointer: It’s hard to add resistance to bodyweight ab moves, so use machines to train in the lower rep ranges. This will help thicken the blocks of your six-pack.