Machines tend to get a bad rap on the gym floor — demonized as non-functional, even dangerous, according to some fitness pros. Still, they’re not necessarily just a bunch of dead weight. Exercise machines can be helpful for beginners who want to start building strength but don’t necessarily have the foundation of lifting with free weights. They can also be a great way to tack on some extra volume at the end of a workout, when a lifter may be too tired to maintain proper form with a dumbbell or barbell.
But for all of their benefits, some machines simply cause more trouble than they’re worth. From increased risk of injury to wasted time with little results, certain exercise machines might be better passed over. Find out which ones to leave out of your routine — and which exercises to try in their place.
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1. Adductor/Abductor Machines
Not only can using these machines look a little bit awkward in the gym, they also pale in effectiveness at developing the intended regions — the inner and outer thigh. While the machines work these muscles in isolation, the adductors and abductors are actually meant to work in coordination with the rest of the body to stabilize the legs. For this reason, Jordan Syatt, head trainer at Syatt Fitness, suggests focusing on free weight exercises.
Try this instead: To get the most work out of these muscles, consider moving in the frontal plane (a fancy word meaning side-to-side) during your workout. This includes side lunge variations and skater jumps. Also, emphasize exercises like the single-leg squat, or pistol squat, which requires more stabilization to build up strength in the hips and thighs. According to Syatt, “Single-leg exercises, such as reverse lunges, forward lunges, single-leg RDLs and single-leg squats are fantastic for the abductors and adductors.”
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2. Seated Rotation Machine
Watch anyone swing a baseball bat or drive a golf ball off the tee. Now, compare that to the motion of the seated rotation machine. Notice a difference? In the former example, the hips and upper body twist in unison to produce rotation. But on the rotation machine, the hips are locked into place while the upper body twists like a corkscrew. When rotating, the hips are meant to move alongside the upper body or else the brunt of the force is placed on the lower back. For this reason, the seated rotation machine isn’t beneficial for adding distance to your golf drive, and it may even lead to injury down the road.
Try this instead: Rather than mimicking a human corkscrew, add rotational movements that involve the entire body to your routine. Start with cable wood chops, which train the hips and upper body at the same time. Your low back (and golf game) will thank you.
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3. Smith Machine
This machine, which features a bar locked into a set path of motion, is often used as a substitute for barbell work like squats and deadlifts. While it can work in a pinch, the Smith machine often leads to an increased chance of injury — not a better workout. Since the path of the bar is fixed, lifters are forced to move with the machine rather than their natural movement. That would be OK if every person moved the same way, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. For this reason, lifters may be forced to move in an unnatural way that could lead to injury down the road.
Try this instead: In lieu of using the Smith machine for heavy lifts, consider using it for hurdle drills to warm-up the hips. By setting the bar at a certain height and then performing a variety of drills ducking under the bar, lifters can prepare their hips for squats and deadlifts — with an Olympic bar.
4. Leg Extension Machine
Sure, it may offer up a quad burn that’s second to none, but most trainers, including Jon-Erik Kawamoto, head trainer at JK Conditioning, advise ditching the leg extension machine as it can lead to some nagging aches and pains (especially for those with knee pain). Since the load from the exercise (the pad on your shin) is so far away from the hinge (your knee), the movement puts a large amount of stress on the knee joint. The leg extension is also an open-chain exercise, meaning the body is in a fixed position while the foot moves.
Kawamoto recommends sticking to closed-chain exercises, such as a squat, where the feet are in a fixed position and the body is moving. Open-chain exercises typically put more stress on the body because the weight can only be dispersed through one area rather than using the entire body to take the brunt of the load. These factors may not culminate in injury for everyone, but they could lead to aggravation down the road.
Try this instead: As an alternative, focus on movements like the Bulgarian split-squat and front squat, which boost strength all over while also hitting the legs. And for an added burn at the end of a workout, try holding a single-leg squat stance for as long as possible. This isometric variation will put the icing on the cake of a great leg workout!
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5. Seated Crunch Machine
The chase for six-pack abs might lead you to this machine, and every other core-blasting piece of equipment on late-night TV. And the seated crunch machine does allows lifters to pile on weight that seems to be effective at working the core. But it has two major flaws. For one, many users spend all day sitting in a chair working in a hunched position at a computer. According to Kawamoto, “If you have bad posture and a natural tendency to sit with a rounded upper back, this exercise may actually exacerbate your bad posture.” Plus, some research suggests that crunches may not be the best move for lower back health.
Try this instead: Rather than strapping down and cranking out set after set of crunches, consider alternative abdominal exercises that emphasize core strength and stabilization like plank variations. Start with a traditional plank on your forearms and toes, and then progress to lifting one leg off the ground. You’ll work your rectus abdominus (the elusive six-pack muscle) along with the rest of your core in one simple move.
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Machines certainly have their place in nearly any workout routine. With the hinges, levels and weight stacks, they provide a safe environment for lifters starting off with a new routine or trying to add some volume to their workout without compromising form. However, not all machines are created equal. With their sometimes-questionable benefits and potential to increase risk of injury, some equipment might be best left out of your strength routine. When in doubt, check with an experienced personal trainer or strength coach who can offer you a pain-free solution that gets results.
Originally published October 2013. Updated April 2017.