The rise in popularity of functional fitness prompted a movement away from exercises that isolate certain muscles and towards those that work groups of muscles together to better prepare them for daily tasks. This is done through exercises that simulate common, everyday movements like squatting, multi-directional lunges and standing bicep curls.
Not sitting on a machine and lifting a weighted plate resting on your ankle with just your right leg.
“If using machines at the gym is the catalyst for somebody getting off the couch and into a healthier lifestyle, that’s a huge win,” said Tim Blake, Japan-based strength coach and owner and founder of Super Fit Dads.
We agree. Sitting your ass on a leg-press machine and working your hamstrings is better then sitting your ass on your couch and working your thumb with the remote.
That being said, if you’ve successful incorporated regular exercise into your routine, heading to the machine section of the gym may not be the most effective (or safest) way to spend your time.
Here are the machines to skip—and more efficient alternatives to swap into your fitness routine.
Seats Ab Rotation
“Not only is this a very dangerous way of trying to work your core, you don’t get much bang for your buck, either!” said Tyler Spraul, CSCS, the Head Trainer at Exercise.com. “You are much better off going with anti-rotation work so that you can train your core to stabilize and protect your spine instead of twisting it unnaturally while sitting down.”
Try This Instead: “Some similar moves that would be much safer are the pallof press (which can be done from standing, kneeling, and half kneeling positions) and different variations of the cable chop, which can be done with bands or cables,” said Spraul. “These are nice because they don’t require rotating of the lumbar section of your spine in particular.”
Ab Crunch and Lower-Back Extension
These two machines “can be a very big waste of time as they will do a disservice to your back and your waist,” said Clint Fuqua, trainer and health coach. “Your abs and lower back are specifically designed to support, move and bend your upper body and are restricted from doing just that when locked into these machines. Yes, they can be used for building extra muscle but only after you have control of your core musculature.”
Try This Instead: “Learn how to breath with your diaphragm, tighten your transverse abdomens (TVA), and control basic movements like planks, spine extensions, sit ups, and leg raises before getting strapped in and loaded up,” said Fuqua.
“Your quadriceps are a big muscle group that cross two joints (your knee and your hip), but this machine only trains the portion of the muscle group that crosses the knee,” said Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM certified personal trainer, and Sport Performance Specialist for Volt Athletics. “This puts undue stress on the knee joint and mimics a motion that you don’t typically do in your daily life, making it unnecessary and potentially harmful.”
Try This Instead: “A good substitute would be a squat or lunge, both of which train the quadriceps to flex the hip and knee in a more ‘functional’ way,” said Estes.
“While it can be useful for getting frail people strong enough to squat, it’s often used as a way for younger males to boost their ego,” said Blake. “Throw on a ton of plates, make a lot of noise, do half-reps (with the spine held in flexion), and then leave all the plates on the machine when you’re done.”
Try This Instead: “If you want to get strong, stick with the ‘big five’ free-weight exercises: squats, bench presses, deadlifts, standing presses and chin ups,” said Blake.
“This machine is a waste of space,” said Estes. “It clutters the gym floor and trains your traps in an isolated way; one that doesn’t simultaneously work on core stability.”
Try This Instead: “Performing a standing shrug with a barbell or dumbbell requires that your trunk muscles stabilize your whole body as you train the traps, giving you more bang for your exercise buck,” said Estes.
“The resistance in this exercise is at the ankles while the quadriceps are attempting to extend the knee joints. The physics of this movement isn’t natural to the body and thus places a tremendous amount of shear force and torque on the joint capsule of the knee, especially at weights significant enough to achieve fatigue in the desired muscle,” said Alex VanHouten, personal trainer and Regional Education Specialist at Life Time Fitness Centennial outside of Denver, CO. “One should always seek to develop muscle in a way that minimizes risk of injury … the benefits of knee extensions frankly just don’t outweigh the costs. Several studies have shown that quadriceps activation is much higher in other exercises, most notably those where extension is maximized in both the hip and knee at the same time!”
The Seated Shoulder Press
“With today’s sedentary lifestyles and seated work environments, very few people have good enough shoulder mobility and movement quality. Because of this, the seated shoulder press—like a lot of machines—is a fixed range of motion that can potentially put someone in a position to hurt themselves,” said Jared Collinson and Dylan Gutheil, NSCA-CSCS, co-owners of Flight Performance & Fitness (Flight) based in Boston, MA. “Poor posture will directly affect the shoulder joints’ ability to function properly when it comes to overhead movement patterns. To press over head, people with poor movement quality need to have a more open chain exercise to stress them, rather than a fixed range of motion built for someone able to move their shoulders properly. Biomechanically, if someone’s shoulders are abducted (hunched position), they will not be able to reach their arms up overhead recruiting the correct muscles in their mid-to-upper back and rotator cuff to assist their shoulder muscles. Rather than strengthening these muscles, which is their goal, they would actually be supporting internal rotation of the glenohumeral joint, which can lead to shoulder impingement and other shoulder injuries.”
Try This Instead: “We recommend the half kneeling overhead press. With this exercise, the individual can focus on squeezing their shoulders back and down in a stable position while pressing a dumbbell within a range of motion that they are comfortable pressing in” To ensure you keep the best form (to avoid injury), Collinson and Gutheil recommend focus on a few things: Keep the rib cage stacked over hips by bracing core; Squeeze the shoulder blades back together to start in a stable position; Press up (and slightly forward, if poor mobility is an issue) as high as possible while maintaining above posture; Make sure not to arch lower back in order to raise the dumbbell high (in absence of adequate shoulder mobility).
The Absolute Worst Machine In the Gym: Hip Abduction/Adduction
“In your daily life, you are never abducting your hips from a flexed position. So this machine trains a movement that is virtually useless, and potentially injurious to your back (if you are performing them with jerky/poor technique),” said Estes.
“The hip adductor (inner thigh) machine is probably the biggest waste of time,” agreed Rui Li, President and CEO of CAKEFIT. “The truth is, most people are overpronators with weak glutes and overactive inner thigh muscles, so to go and isolate what is already way too overused on a machine will do more harm than good in the long run.”
So why are we so drawn to this machine? (There is literally always someone on it when we pass by in the gym.)
“People do this machine to ‘tone’ the inner thighs and the booty. What else is there to do for your inner/outer leg area? You can feel the soreness, so it must be working, right?” said VanHouten. “Let me ask you a question: When you do these exercises, do they feel … well, awkward? The reason it feels strange is because it is.”
“Unlike a squat, deadlift, Turkish get-up, or any other functional movement you can do during exercise, no matter how often you practice the machine, you will never get any better at it,” he added. “To be more scientific, the muscles you’re activating from that seated position on this machine are anatomically intended to stabilize your knees, hips and back in a STANDING position. And thus they fire most efficiently when your hips are not flexed.”
Simply put, if you want to tone up your butt and thighs, you’re much better off standing up while you do it.
“Except in a few very acute cases intended for isolation and strengthening of an injured muscle, ligament or tendon, there are much more effective and results-oriented exercises that allow your adductor and abductor complex to work harder and in a way that is better for your body,” said VanHouten.
Try This Instead: If your inner thighs are a trouble area, there are numerous exercises that provide a safer, more efficient way of toning the area.
“Focus on getting good at squatting instead: improve squat depth as well as how much weight you can do,” suggested Li. “The perfect squat utilizes all of the muscles in the legs and hips, so it really negates the need for any kind of machine. For those with good core and back strength, and decent hip and ankle mobility, I say to give barbell squats a try. Back squats (as well as all power and Olympic lifts) are really amazing for your body, and it takes years to get to not only the perfect form, but an impressive weight, ensuring there is plenty to work toward once you pick up the habit.”
VanHouten also recommended barbell squats and band lateral walks, as well as standing lateral lunges (with TRX or ViPR support if needed, or lateral jumps to increase difficulty), deadlifts and standing towel pulls.
We’ll see you in the weight room.
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