If you missed last week’s post on free weights, I suggest you check it out! Especially since the majority of your time in the gym should be dedicated to using them. That said, though, they are certainly not the only way to train strength. Most gyms carry a variety of different options for resistance training, so let’s jump right into the next category…
Machines are structures in the gym that use levers and pulleys to change the direction of resistance from the typical “straight down” pathway that gravity seems so fond of. They can be good tools to isolate muscle groups beyond what large, compound, free-weight exercises can do, but should not—despite what the person giving you a tour of the gym says—be used to teach proper form for free-weight exercises.
When discussing the different types of machines available, they can probably be broken down into many different categories depending on their structure, function, and type of resistance used. But functionally, we’ll keep it simple and only look at two aspects: the type of resistance used and the type of motion allowed.
[One thing that almost all machines have in common, though, is that they have diagrams on them that show the proper starting position, ending position, and main muscles targeted. Find that, and you'll be better equipped to hop on like you've done it a thousand times.]
Machine Resistance comes in two categories: selectorized and plate-loaded.
Selectorized Machines come with pre-loaded, fixed stacks of weight plates that are all the same weight (well...sometimes the first few are smaller than the rest). So for example, there could be a stack of twenty 10-pound plates, which would mean you could use the selector pin to choose any weight between 10 and 200 pounds (in increments of 10) for your resistance.
Some machines will have larger jumps between weight plates but then some smaller weights that aren’t part of the actual stack that can be added to increase variability. For instance, there might be a stack of twenty 15-pound plates and two 5-pound weights that you can add on, so you can increase from 15 to 300 pounds in increments of 5 pounds rather than 15. Pretty clever, if you ask me. I hope the person that designed that got a raise.
Plate-Loaded Machines use the same weight plates that free-weight bars use. I don’t have anything else to add there, so here’s a picture of one:
Which is better?
To be honest, they’re pretty equal as far as effectiveness goes. The selectorized machines might have a couple of advantages as far as safety and convenience go, though. Since the weight stacks are part of the apparatus, you only have to move around a tiny selector pin to change weights, and thus greatly reduce the risk of dropping a 45-pound plate on your toes. This selector pin also makes them more convenient since changing weights requires much less hassle.
The only leg up I can think of for the plate-loaded machines is the total weight you can use: you can really load them up if need be. But that’s not really something to worry about for awhile, anyway; if you’re just starting out in a gym and think that you’re too strong for the heaviest weight on a machine, there’s a really good chance you’re doing something wrong. The ability to somehow move a weight stack does not equate to performing an exercise correctly.
Machine Motion can also be split into two categories: fixed and free.
Fixed Motion means that the ROM on the machine is always the same regardless of who is using it; the handles (or platforms or what have you) travel from point A to point B along the same path every time. Most machines will have adjustable seats, and some can be adjusted in other places, as well, to make the user more comfortable. But the pathway of the resistance is pretty unchangeable.
Free Motion is when the resistance is always pulling in the same direction, but the ROM pathway is up to the user. These machines typically rely on cables and pulleys, which provide a freer ROM and, thus, the opportunity—much like free weights—to also work some stabilizing muscles and not just the prime movers.
There will always be the odd exception—the gray-area machine that doesn’t quite fit into these neat little categories—but understanding how most machines are set up and function will make it much easier to actually get in there and start using them. The last thing you want to do is not get started!
Which is better?
In my opinion, cable/pulley-based machines are superior to lever-based machines. As mentioned, the path of resistance is up to the user. This allows for the machine to better adjust to the user rather than making the user adjust to the machine (re: risk completely improper movement patterns).
As also mentioned, cable machines recruit more muscles in order to provide stability, thus getting you a more “realistic” workout, so to speak. In fact, in some instances cables can be superior even to free weights in that the resistance they provide is constant and does not depend on the angle at which you’re holding the weight.
Machines can be really useful tools in the gym, but should not be your sole method of resistance training. They have their advantages, but machine exercises usually cannot compare to their free-weight counterparts.
Learn the machines, use the machines, but don’t ONLY use the machines.
Next week, we’ll discuss more equipment commonly available for resistance training.