The world of physical activity, especially as it pertains to the transformation of one’s body, is rife with contradiction, myth, varying opinions, and conflicting research. HIIT vs. steady state cardio…low carbohydrate vs. low-fat diets…high volume vs. high-intensity training – the arguments abound.
Another popular debate is the machines vs. free weights topic - fighting over which is better for adding slabs of new muscle mass. Well, let’s end that discussion right now because the truth is that both free weights and machines have their advantage and disadvantages, pros and cons. In fact, the strengths of one can be said to be the weaknesses of the other – and vice versa.
However, without getting too far into the science, biomechanics, EMG studies, and physiology I can assure you that a proper balance of free weights (defined as BBs and DBs) and machines (plate loaded, pin loaded, cable) will pave the quickest path to building the physique you are after – not just one or the other alone.
With that in mind, this article is going to focus on some of my favorite machine-based exercises and why I feel they are so valuable in building muscle. I will not be naming specific machines by brand, but rather simply discussing types of machines in general – most of which are common to any commercial gym. Ok, let’s do this!
For me, the Hack Squat has contributed more to the size of my thighs than even BB squats. One is able to go heavy on this exercise without having to worry too much about the lower back. The Hack Squat takes much of the glutes and hips out of the movement and allows for a more direct hit to the quads. There is little pressure on the neck even when piling on the plates and going deep into the hole is less of a safety hazard.
Variation – Move the feet higher or lower on the platform to slightly change fiber recruitment patterns. Go with a wide or narrow stance to switch emphasis from the inner to the outer thigh. Try reverse Hack Squats when looking to focus more on the glutes.
I use some form of Leg Press at every one of my quad workouts. This movement is killer when done with a full range of motion (note: "half-reppers" should stay home) whether going for heavy sets of 4-6 or lung-frying adventures of 30 or more. The best thing about the Leg Press is you can literally destroy your thighs without over-taxing the upper body.
Variation – Like with the Hack Squat, try varying your foot positions from workout to workout. Additionally, try doing this exercise one leg at a time going as deep as you can on every rep. Talk about a lower-body killer!
I love this movement for the hams as they have a totally different feel from either lying or seated leg curls. They actually give a similar contraction that a seated concentration curl does for the biceps.
Variation – Try pointing rather than flexing the foot while doing your reps for a unique hamstring hit!
Many lifters consider this exercise to be a “finishing” movement and not really any kind of mass builder – but I totally disagree. Two of the best ways to tear up muscle fibers (which then need to be repaired bigger and stronger) are through a deep stretch and a powerful peak contraction, and the Seated Chest Flye allows for both on every rep! Make sure to keep the elbows up and in line with the hands throughout the set for max-pec-activation.
Variation – Move the seat higher or lower to better target muscle fibers in the lower, mid, or clavicular pectorals.
Not every gym has one of these, but they really should! There are few movements that isolate the upper lats and teres major so directly, which really brings out the back width directly under the armpit. The Seated Pullover is my go-to exercise for creating that V-taper.
Variation – You can bring the seat slightly higher or lower to get a different feel when doing these. But always make sure to go from full stretch to contraction.
Generally, this exercise is performed on the same machine where one does a Seated Chest Flye but instead facing inward toward the back pad. This is my favorite movement for smashing the rear delts and has really helped fill out my mid/upper back with muscular detail. I also find I can go really heavy on these and still get a great contraction on every rep.
Variation – Set the seat higher or lower in order to hit the rear delts somewhat differently. Also, if you want to strongly engage the mid-traps then bring the elbows back as far as possible and squeeze.
Because overhead extension exercises most strongly stimulate the long head (the one with the greatest mass) of the triceps I tend to favor them in my arm training. However, when done with a cable rather than a BB or DB you get not only a great stretch but also an equally strong peak contraction.
Variation – Perform this movement with different bar attachments, such as a “V,” straight and/or cambered bar. Sometimes I will even do this exercise one arm at a time, only grabbing onto the end of the cable.
I have never been a big fan of doing an angled Preacher Curl with a BB or DB (although I do like the 90-degree version with free weight) as it does not provide a great contraction. However, with a machine you have resistance pulling down on you at the top of the movement, which allows for a hard and productive squeeze. I also like the control this machine allows when going for a full stretch (which is a strong anabolic trigger).
Variation – Move your grip from narrow to wide to help target the inner or outer biceps heads. As well, try this exercise one arm at a time for maximum concentration and neural drive.
Well, there you have it, some of my favorite machine movements for sculpting/building an awesome physique. I will return with part II of this discussion at some point as I have many more I want to add to the list!