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Just as a chain saw is more efficient than an ax, some exercises performed with cables and cams have clear advantages over their barbell or dumbbell equivalents.
Before you grab your pitchfork and cry, “Heresy!” rest assured that we’re not denigrating free weights. However, you need to understand how some machines fight gravity to stress your muscles through a fuller range of motion than ’bells ever could.
What follows are seven examples of machine exercises that have distinct advantages over their free-weight equivalents. Each focuses on a different body part. Only hamstrings and calves are excluded, and only because nearly every exercise for those areas is performed with a machine. This is not an argument against the seven free-weight equivalents, all of which are valuable exercises. Instead, it’s meant to highlight the advantages of some machines so you’ll better understand why to include them in your routine.
This is not just a mechanical, seated version of a dumbbell flye. It’s a gravity buster. Weights want to go one direction—straight down to the floor. So any motion in a dumbbell flye that isn’t moving the dumbbells up but is instead propelling them closer together isn’t doing much to tax your muscles. Conversely, because a machine flye’s resistance comes from a weight stack that is always fighting gravity during its rise, there’s tension throughout the movement.
A pulldown has three distinct advantages over an unassisted pullup. First, it allows you to more precisely calibrate the resistance. If you can’t get 10 reps of pullups, you can certainly select a pulldown weight that lets you get 10. Second, it’s easier to change the stress with various handles. Finally, you’re able to focus more on contractions. While few people can repeatedly pause and flex in the “up” position of an unassisted pullup, everyone can find a weight that lets them do so in a pulldown’s “down” position.
CABLE SIDE LATERAL
Most of the stress of dumbbell side laterals comes during the top halves of reps, when you’re raising your arms more and moving them outward less. Remember, gravity rules. As with a machine flye, a cable lateral’s resistance goes straight up and down in the form of a weight stack. Therefore, tension is applied equally throughout the movement.
SMITH MACHINE SQUAT
By squatting with a machine that forces the bar to travel straight up and down (or slightly backward), you can alter the position of your feet—from beneath your hips to far out in front—and still maintain proper form. Also, because pins for racking the bar are always just a turn of the wrist away, the Smith lets you more safely squat heavy without a spotter.
Preacher curls are another exercise diminished by gravity. This time it’s the top halves of reps when stress is lessened. In fact, the weight is actually moving down at the very top of the movement, eliminating all tension from the biceps. One way to counter this is to use chains or bands, thus increasing resistance throughout reps. Another way is to do machine curls. These typically mimic a preacher curl, but once again the resistance comes from a weight stack’s rise, so the biceps are hit from stretch to contraction.
TRICEPS CABLE EXTENSION
As with preacher curls, when doing the free-weight version of this exercise, the closer you get to the top position the less you’re battling gravity. Just before contractions, the weight is traveling nearly parallel to the floor, and this is true whether you’re lying, seated, or standing. However, by doing these with a cable, you’re fighting the gravitational pull of the weight stack, even at the end. Mechanical triceps exercises, including pushdowns, allow you to flex your tri’s against tension at contractions.
A body-weight crunch is a short movement with virtually all of the tension at the contraction. A good crunch machine won’t lengthen the range of motion, but it will distribute the stress equally from start to finish.
MACHINE TRAINING TIP SHEET
MACHINE TRAINING BASICS
ALL-MACHINE CHEST ROUTINE
Smith Machine Incline Press: 4 sets, 8–10 reps
Hammer Strength Bench Press: 4 sets, 8–10 reps
Machine Flye: 4 sets, 10–12 reps
Incline Cable Crossover: 3 sets, 10–12 reps