For a newcomer, the gym is a rather intimidating place that sometimes puts aesthetics above all else. Dumbbells and barbells are packed with muscular men and women, which can be demoralizing at first. Machines are often a safe haven for newcomers, as there is no reason for others to be in your space if you have already occupied the machine. While this is all well and good, the machines also have a lot of benefits for novices that can set them up for success. But how does the machine behave compared to more renowned barbell and barbell workouts and what is the overall efficiency of the machines at the gym?
The purpose of the machine
Machines normally serve a singular purpose which is to work for a specific muscle group. There are pros and cons to this. Because the range of motion is so limited, newcomers are conditioned to use the correct range of motion because there is little to no room for mistakes in your technique. The downsides are that when newbies begin to take the proper form for strength training exercises, the machine MAY start to feel restrictive.
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The machines are primarily intended for isolated exercise and tackle many muscle groups and exercises that lack sufficient free weights. Leg curl, leg press. Weighted crunches and many other exercises are used by the machine because it is impossible to find an optimized replacement in the free weight category. The military press, bench press, and curls are examples of exercises that can be done with free weights, but are still viable if you choose to continue using the machine.
Interestingly, because techniques aren’t your biggest concern when using the machine, it allows you to focus on building strength and is an easier way to track your weight progress without losing yourself. . The weight gain is much smaller per ankle and it allows new gym-goers to slow things down. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword as many machines will start to get incredibly light after a few good years of training.
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Even though machines offer both compound and isolated exercise options, many have turned to them for the latter as they move up the fitness ladder. With deadlifts, squats, and the multi-grip bench press being options that machines can’t offer, it would make sense for dumbbells to reign supreme in compound exercises. Indeed, the technique necessary to master said compound exercises with the bar requires a lot of attention to the small muscle groups in addition to focusing on the primary muscles, bigger and bigger.
In terms of isolation, dumbbells can pose a threat to machines, as both respond to higher reps with lower weights – where both training platforms excel. Exercises like front raises, side raises, flies, and skull crushers are not available for machines, but it also goes the other way around. So which one is better for isolation? Before we answer, we need to talk about cables.
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The role of cables
The cables are strange! Although they technically fall under the category of “machines”, they are extremely adjustable in terms of height, handles, resistance and of course weight. The range of motion cables on offer is impressive, given that they have a fixed pivot system which shouldn’t allow great mobility.
Due to the cables, options like front raises, side raises, side pulls, triceps extensions are available. While cables are an impressive compromise between machines and dumbbells, it’s important to note that technique begins to play a role when using them, but not to the same extent as dumbbells. Using improper technique can present injury risks as free weights would.
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Compared to other types of static machines, cables perform a very similar role. Both pay special attention to isolation exercises and complement low weight and high reps. If you’re thinking about weight training, cables and machines will be your best friends, as strength training doesn’t benefit as much from machines and cables. Since the cables provide more flexibility in body posture and a smooth range of motion, there is a higher chance of injury compared to more linear machines.
Are the machines better?
The short answer is not necessarily. While machines are phenomenal for providing a safe range of motion without putting you at too much risk, they are generally not considered a staple or the core of many parts of the body. The arms and shoulders require more isolated exercises due to the number of smaller muscles in this category, but the shoulders, back, chest, and legs will undoubtedly need free weights to be successful at a fundamental level.
Once the compound exercises are done and your body has expelled most of its energy, isolation exercises are usually the ones that complement the workout. It is certainly possible to turn things around and exclusively engage isolated body parts, but it will take much longer and will not be the best for muscle growth.
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Isolation exercises to consider on machines and cables include preacher curls, flies, tricep extensions, leg curls, and rows. While all of these exercises are doable on dumbbells, the nature of the machines will make your range of motion more likely to be correct and you can minimize safety risks. Exercises to avoid include the bench press, shoulder press, and row flexion.
While these exercises can work on machines, they are best suited for free weights, as properly controlling your body while performing the technique will work on many more muscle groups than you would notice. Overall, machines are great add-on exercises that excel in isolation routines, but should never be the focus of your workouts if you plan on pumping iron for the long haul.
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