For a newcomer, the gym is a rather intimidating place that puts aesthetics above all else at times. Dumbbells and barbells are crowded with muscular men and women, which can be demoralising at first. Machines are often a safe haven for newcomers as there is no reason for others to be around your space if you have already occupied the machine. While that is well and good, machines also have a lot of benefits to novices that can set them up for success. But how does the machine fare against the more renowned dumbbell and barbell workouts and how effective are machines overall at the gym?
The Machine’s Purpose
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 movement is so limited, newcomers are conditioned to use the correct range of motion, as there’s little to no room for errors in your technique. The cons are that when novices start getting the proper form down for free weight exercises, the machine CAN start feeling restrictive.
Machines are predominantly meant for isolated exercises and tackle many muscle groups and exercises those free weights fall short of. Leg curls, leg press. Weighted crunches and many more exercises are used by the machine because it is impossible to find an optimised 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 grants the opportunity to focus on building strength and is an easier way to track your weight progression without getting confused. Weight progression is a lot more minor per peg and it allows newer gymgoers a chance to take things slow. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword as many machines will start becoming incredibly light after a few good years of training.
Even though machines offer both options of compound and isolated exercises, many have turned towards them for the latter as they progress up the fitness ladder. With deadlifts, squats and multi-grip bench press being options that machines cannot offer, it would make sense that barbells reign supreme in compound exercises. This is because the technique needed to master said compound exercises with the bar requires a lot of attention to smaller muscle groups on top of focusing on the primary, bigger, larger muscles.
In terms of isolation, dumbbells may pose quite a threat to machines as both cater around higher repetitions with lower weights - where both workout platforms excel. Exercises like front raises, side raises, flies and skull crushers are not available for machines, but it goes the other way too. So, which one is better for the purpose of isolation? Before answering that, we need to talk about cables.
The Role Of Cables
Cables are a strange one! Although they technically fall under the category of “machines”, they are extremely adjustable in terms of height, handles, resistance, and of course, weights. The range of movement cables offered is impressive, given that they have a fixed pivot system that should not allow for much mobility.
Because of cables, options like front raises, side raises, lat pulldowns, tricep extensions are made available. Although cables are an impressive compromise between machines and dumbbells, it is important to note that technique begins to play a part when using them, but not to the same extent as dumbbells. Utilising the wrong technique can present risks of injuries like free weights would.
When compared to other types of static machines, cables offer a very similar role. Both pay close attention to isolation exercises and complement low weight and high repetitions. If you are thinking of body building, both cables and machines will be your best friend as strength training doesn't benefit nearly as much from machines and cables. Since cables offer more flexibility in body posture and a fluid range of motion, there is a higher chance to sustain injuries as compared to the more linear machines.
Are Machines Better?
The short answer is not necessarily. While machines are phenomenal in providing a safe range of motion without exposing you to too much risk, it usually is not regarded as a staple or the core to many body parts. Arms and shoulders require more isolated exercises due to how many smaller muscles are in that category, but shoulders, back, chest and legs will undoubtedly require free weights to succeed on a fundamental level.
After the compound exercises are done and your body has expelled most of its energy, isolation exercises are usually the ones to round up the workout. It is definitely possible to switch things around and engage isolated body parts exclusively, but it will take up much more of your time and will not be the best for muscle growth.
Isolation exercises to consider on machines and cables include preacher curls, flies, tricep extensions, leg curls, and rows. Although all of these exercises are doable on dumbbells, the nature of machines will make it so that your range of motion has a better chance of being correct and that you can minimise safety risks. Exercises to avoid include bench press, shoulder press, and bend over rows.
While these exercises can work on machines, they are best suited for free weights as controlling your body properly as it executes the technique will work on far more muscle groups than one would notice. Overall, machines are great complementary exercises that excel in isolation routines, but should not ever be at the centre of your workouts if you are thinking of pumping iron for the long term.