Some exercise machines are useful, some are okay, and some are just dangerous. Here are the worst machines and several better alternatives.
Lifters who begin training with barbells and dumbbells scoff at machine training. And sure, many exercise machines don’t suck. The right ones will overload muscles (not joints) while requiring less stability.
But think of the big picture. Long-term gains require consistent training, and consistent training requires you to remove inherently high-risk, low-benefit exercises. Here are the crappiest machines and better alternatives.
Sucky Machine 1: Triceps Press
If you dream of ice picks being jabbed into your shoulders and possibly even a future shoulder surgery, you’ll love the triceps press machine.
It’s a similar position to the bench dip, another shoulder-shredder. And since most people lack the mobility to perform the triceps press, they inherently jet their heads forward and lean forward to attain the position. This causes a ton of stress and strain in the shoulder capsule.
If you have optimal shoulder mobility and shoulder health, you might be able to use the machine on occasion, but unfortunately, few lifters do.
There are two things you can do:
Hold a dumbbell between your legs and do 8-10 controlled reps. Once you’re just shy of failure, drop the dumbbell and continue repping out until you hit a point of technical failure. The heavy set will maximally recruit high-threshold muscle fibers. Once fatigue sets in, you’ll be able to attack the remaining muscle fibers to maximize growth.
Do a single triceps pushdown and pause at the bottom, pulling the rope apart. Squeeze your triceps for 15-30 seconds. Then do 8-15 reps.
Sucky Machine 2: Seated Trunk Twist
This is a popular exercise for those wanting to target their love handles. Many people love the “burn” they feel in their obliques and believe they’re going to eliminate this trouble spot. Unfortunately, spot reduction is predominantly a myth, and this movement is a recipe for low-back pain.
Your external and internal obliques help you bend, rotate, and assist with spinal flexion while actively resisting excess rotation to protect your spine. There are many exercises that’ll make you perform these functions without compromising lower back health.
Here are three better alternatives:
The goal is to prevent your body from bending sideways. You want to resist lateral flexion, an action your quadratus lumborum (QL) and obliques carry out.
Place a bench beside you. Begin from a side-lying position, rest your top foot on the bench, and place your forearm on the floor directly under your shoulder.
Press your leg into the bench so that you lift yourself into a side-plank. Now lift your other leg until it touches the bottom of the bench while making sure that your whole body is forming one straight line. Prevent leaning and hinging at the hips, and hold the position. Do three sets of 30-seconds per side.
Squeeze the glute on your down leg. Brace your core. Press the band in front of your chest. Vary your tempo as you please, but always control the eccentric (lowering phase) and hold it at peak contraction.
Sucky Machine 3: Seated Shoulder Press
This type of shoulder press fails across the board when it comes to injury and muscle growth. While many lifters don’t have the shoulder mobility or stability to safely press barbells or dumbbells overhead, one of the benefits of machines is that you can demolish a muscle without needing a ton of stability. The machine stabilizes the weight for you.
But in the case of a machine, this works against you. Without the shoulder mobility to get into the overhead pressing position safely, you’re left with no choice but to over-stress a vulnerable joint while exasperating the gap between joint mobility (the ability to get into an optimal position) and joint stability (the ability to control a range of motion).
This is like putting a supercharged Ferrari engine in a car without a steering wheel and expecting to navigate a winding road. It’s not going to work. There are better options to build big shoulders without battering your joints.
There are two great ways to improve your shoulder mobility and fire up your mid-back and delts so that you can do overhead work.
The floor slide activates muscles of the mid and upper back, namely the mid-lower trap, helping combat poor posture to improve overhead work.
Lay facing up and keep your low back flat with arms extended overhead. Without arching, drive your elbows down towards your sides, squeezing through your mid-back. Stop your range of motion if you start to arch through the lower back, gradually increasing range of motion (ROM) as allowed. Do 2-3 sets of 8 reps each day as part of your warm-up.
This exercise will help you recruit stagnant muscle fibers, place a ton of muscle-building metabolic stress on your shoulders, and provide plenty of tension to stimulate growth.
Use a pre-set hold for 10-20 seconds, followed by 10-15 reps. Repeat for 3-5 sets with 30-60 seconds rest in between.
Sucky Machine 4: Seated Ab Crunch
Granted, this machine will train your abs, but it’ll also put a ton of stress directly on the intervertebral disks of your spine.
The first problem with this machine is how most people spend their days: flexed over a keyboard. They lack core strength and stability in preventing unwanted motion (anti-flexion). By adding weighted flexion to an already overused movement pattern, spinal stress increases more, making a bad problem worse while ignoring another: core stability.
The second problem is the application and setup of the exercise. To maximize a muscle contraction, it’s best to reach a fully stretched position (think of your hamstrings in a Romanian deadlift).
With ab crunch machines, you’re beginning in a forward-flexed position with your feet locked into place. Rather than working your abs through a full range of motion, you’re staying in a hyper-flexed position and, in most cases, doing a ton of reps to feel the burn.
Abdominal flexion is undoubtedly a crucial muscular action, but there are better exercises to perform the same function without the same inherent risks.
Here are three great ways to train your abs:
Kneel while holding a rope attachment on a pulley at eye-level. Hold the rope on both sides of your head, push your hips forward, then extend them and stretch your abs at the top of the movement. Move your torso back down by flexing at the waist and squeezing your abs as hard as possible at the bottom.
Hook your feet into the straps of a suspension trainer and assume a push-up position. Bring your knees in toward your stomach while lifting your hips and crunching your abs. Extend back out to a full push-up position and repeat.
Grab a pull-up bar with a double overhand grip, squeezing it as tightly as possible and keeping the elbows slightly bent. Keep your shoulder blades retracted as if tucking them into your back pocket and holding them there.
From this position, flex your quads and bring your legs up past 90 degrees, allowing your hips to roll up, forming an “L” shape with your body. Pause at the top range of motion for two seconds, then lower under control.
Sucky Machine 5: Abduction/Adduction
The only thing more awkward than making eye contact with someone on the yes/no machine is seeing someone use it while wearing a robe. My personal trauma aside, this machine is marketing gold: it attracts people who want to target their “trouble” spots around their inner and outer thighs.
Yes, some level of muscular isolation is a good thing, particularly if you struggle with a mind-muscle connection or have a specific weakness. Yet this machine leaves much to be desired. Most muscles you’re working have dual roles primarily related to stability and multi-planar movement.
There are better options for training the muscles responsible for adduction (legs move together) and abduction (legs move apart).
Here are exercises that hit the musculature surrounding the sides of your thighs:
Set up in a basic side plank position with your elbow under your shoulder and your leg on top of the bar or bench. Raise your hip and lower leg off the floor and keep a nice straight line from your head to your tail. Lift your bottom leg towards your top. This is straight-leg adduction. Keep your hips neutral at all times. Do 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps per leg.
Sit perpendicular on a bench. Place a band just above your knees and keep your knees directly over your toes. Lean forward slightly and keep your tension with the band. Do three sets of 20 abductions with 45-seconds rest.
Stand tall and keep your toes dorsiflexed (pulled up). Keep constant tension on the band around your ankles. Slowly take a side step. Control the eccentric on the trailing leg. Continue stepping laterally. Do 10 reps on each side, then without rest, perform reps from 10-1 in countdown fashion. Do only one set.
Perform 3 sets of 5 reps per side as part of your warm-up.
Do 3 sets of 20-yard sled drags per side.
Keep your spine in a neutral, braced position. Drive your working heel into the floor to reach full hip extension. With the non-planted leg, bend your knee and rotate your leg to the side while keeping your hips neutral.