The Ultimate Machine-Based Training Plan

How to Build Your Body in a Wimpy Gym

Bad gym? No barbells? No problem. Build your body anyway with this machine-based plan and a couple of light dumbbells.

Any training program is doable if you’re a member of a fully equipped gym. It’s a little tougher if all you have access to is an apartment, dorm, or hotel fitness center. Most of these little gyms just have machines and a few light dumbbells. Not great if your main goal is hypertrophy… unless you know how to train.

The Good News

Machines still build size. Being able to zero in on a fixed path allows you to progressively overload and fatigue muscles in isolation and make use of consistent, reliable mechanical tension.

That’s a gold mine for building muscle if you have a foundation of strength and understand good technique. Whether you use these methods all the time or only when you’re traveling, you’re not in the worst scenario you can imagine as long as you play your cards right.

The Commonly Available Equipment

Most condo, apartment, or hotel gyms have some staple machines. Here’s what you might come across:

  • Seated Chest Press Machine
  • Seated Shoulder Press Machine
  • Lat Pulldown Station
  • Pull-Up Station
  • Leg Extension Machine
  • Cable Tower
  • Assorted Dumbbells, Adjustable Bench
  • Rowing Machine

Believe it or not, if you have access to this list, you can make one hell of a training program that surrounds it.

The One-Week Sample Program

This program makes full use of basic isolation machines and light dumbbells. You’ll be extending sets and overloading and fatiguing muscles. If you’re not familiar with some of the exercises in the plan or need some tips, here’s a quick video:

Day 1: Back

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A. Pull-Up 4 max ALAN*
B1. Lat Pulldown (underhand grip) 4 10
B2. J-Rope Pulls 4 12 2 min.
C1. Cobra Pulldown 4 10/arm
C2. Bentover Reverse Flye 4 12 2 min.
D. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row (paused reps)** 3 12

* As long as needed.
** This won’t require the heaviest dumbbells due to the tempo. Aim for a three-second lowering phase and a pause at both the top and bottom of each rep. It’ll make for long sets and a strong hit to the upper back muscles.

Day 2: Chest

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A. Seated Chest Press* 1131 15,10,8(slow eccentric),15 2 min.
B. Incline Cable Chest Press (EMOM)** 8 min. 10
C1. Flat Dumbbell Flye 3 12
C2. Bodyweight Push-Up 3 max ALAN

* For your first two sets, ramp up in weight. Once you reach your working sets (3x8) use a slow eccentric. The aim of the working sets is to attain the highest effort for the greatest portion of the set. If your last two reps are only slightly tougher than the first six, you didn’t go heavy enough. Try to find the sweet spot where the weight feels heavy but still allows you to use good form. The second half of each set should be a slow grind.

** EMOM stands for “every minute on the minute.” So, start your clock, then do your first set while the clock runs. Let’s say the set takes 15 seconds to complete – you now have the remainder of that minute to rest (in this case, 45 seconds) until the turn of the next minute. That’s when you start your second set. You’ll be fatigued at this point, so start lighter than you think you should.

Day 3: Legs

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A. Dumbbell Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat* 4 8/leg ALAN
B1. Paused Leg Extension** 4 12
B2. Reverse Nordic Curl 4 10 2 min.
C1. Rowing Machine Hamstring Curl 4 10
C2. Goblet Squat*** 4 12 2 min.

* If you can, elevate the front foot onto a low step or platform (no higher than 6 inches) to create a deficit. Rest 15 seconds between legs and rest as long as needed between rounds. Use the heaviest dumbbells you can.

** For the leg extension, use a controlled eccentric, a strong concentric, and a distinct pause at peak contraction (full knee extension). The great thing about this compound set? It trains the quads for knee extension from both a hip-flexed and a hip-extended position. No muscles of the quadricep group are left untrained. Rest two minutes between rounds.

*** You’ll be fatigued by this point, so even if your gym is equipped with lighter dumbbells, they’ll still provide a training effect. Rest two minutes between rounds of this superset.

Day 4: Shoulders

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A. Seated Shoulder Press Machine* 1131 15,10,8,15
B. High Incline Press (EMOM) 8 min. 8
C1. Cable Reverse Crossover Flye 3 15
C2. Dumbbell Lateral Raise (Standing) 3 12 90 sec.
D1. Single-Arm Lean Away Lateral Raise 3 12/arm
D2. Rear Delt Cable Chop** 3 15/arm
E. Face Pull*** 2 20 ALAN

* For your first two sets, ramp up in weight. Once you reach your working sets (3x8) use a slow eccentric.

** The rear-delt chop takes advantage of resisting a usually untouched range of shoulder mobility: from the most adducted (arm across the chest) to the midline. Most abduction patterns start at the midline and make their way outward from there, neglecting a good stretched starting position of the rear delts.

*** Choose the best face pull variation for your goals.


Nicely done! I travel quite a bit, and you basically described hotel gyms. I also love that this is a sample week, vs. your planned “forever” - that fits the more likely circumstance (in my opinion).