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5 Reasons You Do Not Need Machines and 5 Reasons You Might

By Jerod Langness, NASM Master Trainer, CPT, CES, PES, WLS

Resistance training machines have been a staple in gyms and workout facilities for decades now. In fact, the line-up of these machines can often be a deciding factor in whether a person chooses to become a member of a particular gym or not.

I understand they can make a big impression. You take the tour of a potential fitness center and gaze over an organized field of shiny, steel contraptions. It’s like being on a car lot with brand new vehicles that you get to test drive.

These machines often seem like the state-of-the-art answer to your fitness dreams. You get excited to begin on the pathway to a better you and to take on the steel jungle.

Despite the allure of these machines, how effective are they? Do they really do what people expect of them? What place can and should machines have in a fitness program?

Machines do have a potential role for many purposes, but you may be surprised what their best uses actually are. As we look into some of the reasons people get started on a fitness program, we can see how machines may or may not be the best choice for the centerpiece of a routine.

Here are 5 reasons you may be using machines for the wrong reasons – along with several ways they can contribute to certain stages and aims of training.

“Machines will help me lose weight.”

What machines won’t do for you…

Machine style equipment may seem like a good idea to get slimmer. The problem with machines for this purpose is they most often promote sitting and not a lot of calorie burning. If your job and lifestyle are sedentary, coming to the gym to sit more may not be the best strategy for fat burning.

Simply put, these machine-directed movements can be reproduced in ways that burn more calories through standing and using a wide variety of equipment and training models.

To accomplish your weight loss goal, you want to train the smartest way to get the fastest, most efficient results, while learning how to keep the body fat off.

Every exercise (and choice you make outside the gym) should ideally be selected with your goals as the primary focus. These are exercises that incorporate multiple muscles, balance challenges, and different planes of motion.

Having a qualified Personal Trainer to design a proper program that incorporates these variables will help you achieve your weight loss goal with the least amount of time investment. These exercises are often dynamic in how the body is moving throughout the motion, such as a medicine ball squat to overhead press. After that goal is attained, you can concentrate on other fitness goals you may have.

What machines might do for you…

One contribution machines might make toward weight loss would be their potential role in creating a proper fitness foundation and a solid understanding of the correct motions being performed. For those wanting to lose body fat, the machines may give a good understanding of how to properly move the body.

These machines also offer an easy transition from sedentary living to moving more. Still, workouts should to some degree maximize calorie expenditure. In order for machines to play a role here, workouts should be designed to lessen the amount of rest while utilizing large muscle groups.

This can often look like a circuit style, total-body workout – with a group of machines that a person circulates among so the heart rate will stay elevated and the body can rest one muscle group while the other muscle group is working.  

An example of this could include a lat pulldown, seated chest press, leg press, seated overhead press, hamstring curl, seated tricep extension, bicep curl, and ab crunch machine. This is one of many combinations that can be created.

Remember, it’s important to change workouts so your body can be challenged with different planes of motion and different types of exercises.  If you repeat the same exercises, your body will no longer get the same benefits that were first occurring. Progression must occur.

“Machines will help me get back in shape.”

What machines won’t do for you…

Some people may not be as concerned with losing body fat but instead want to get back to a fitness level they once maintained.

As with any fitness goal, you want to always get the best bang for your buck. Your time is valuable. Your workouts need to be efficient, progressive, and designed to condition your body overall. Similar to the goal of weight loss, the exercises should utilize a large number of muscles at once while working in multiple planes of motion. These workouts also need progression.

Machines offer a predetermined path of motion with very few variables to change. You can change your tempo, your amount of resistance, range of motion and sometimes choose to use one limb or two with the use of machines. Otherwise, you are repeating the same motion every time you choose that exercise.

To regain good overall fitness, machines may be very limiting. Machines limit the collaboration of the multiple muscles in your body working synergistically in a motion.

What machines might do for you…

However, incorporating machines in a strength endurance workout may give you the opportunity to maximize the effort of your agonist/prime mover muscles while exhausting your synergist/stabilizing muscles.

You can do this by following the machine exercise with a more challenging, dynamic exercise using the same muscles – also known as a superset.

This has the ability to translate well for building endurance in your muscles while teaching the kinetic chain (muscular, skeletal, and nervous system connection) to work at its best.

One big factor for achieving success is to incorporate progression and periodization. Have a qualified Personal Trainer give proper assessments to know if this is a phase that fits your current fitness level. If muscle imbalances are present, this may not be the type of training you would want to start with.

“Machines are great to help recover from injuries.”

What machines won’t do for you…

Machines can be a very safe mode of training. Since the movement of the machine is predetermined by design, you are able to have control of the motion. Recovering from injuries, however, is more complex than just moving. 

When an injury occurs, it can happen mainly one of two ways. It can be caused by an outside force that disrupts the proper functioning movement, or the injury can be caused by an altered movement pattern created by underactive or overactive muscles.

The first scenario can occur from an accident or contact in a sport when someone or something interferes with the correct movement. The second option occurs when muscles have become weakened from lack of use or overly tight from overuse or repetitive motion.

In both cases, the cumulative injury cycle can occur. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the cumulative injury cycle is a cycle whereby an injury will induce inflammation, muscle spasm, adhesions, altered neuromuscular control and muscle imbalance. Without using proper corrective exercise, this cycle will continue to reoccur and cause repeated problems to the site of the injury as well as potentially disrupt other joints related to the injured area.

With all that occurs in injuries, there’s a process that takes place to ensure the best and most proper, well balanced recovery. Some Personal Trainers, like me, are Corrective Exercise Specialists. This means we are certified to address muscle imbalances and design programs to bring balance back to the body.

In the process of correcting these imbalances, there is a process of inhibiting the muscles that are shortened/and or overactive, lengthening the shortened muscles, activating the weakened/underactive muscles, and integrating the body to move in the correct movement patterns, firing the proper muscles with correct alignment and control.

Machines may help with the activation of some muscles. Most often, however, the exercises and techniques needed to correct the muscles imbalances are most effectively performed with other methods.

To avoid compensations and to reduce the chance of re-injury, your training needs to consist of movements that incorporate prime moving muscles, synergistic muscles, stabilizing muscles, and antagonist muscles. Unfortunately, machine exercises miss many of these muscles.

What machines might do for you…

Machines may not be the answer as you recover from an injury, but there may be cases when they fit within the process.

When an injury occurs, muscle atrophy may become part of the picture. Machines can sometimes be a great tool to get the muscles to fire and move in a safe, controlled environment.

It will take more than just machines to truly recover properly, but there are cases when they may be a beneficial component to your overall recovery plan.

I personally broke my femur and tore two ligaments in my knee in a car accident. One of the first things my physical therapist put me through was some limited motion, light weight leg press sets. I soon moved on to more challenging balance exercises, but the leg press was helpful in that initial stage.

“Machines will make me big and strong.”

What machines won’t do for you…

In some cases, the goal is to gain muscle mass and/or get stronger. In order to make the best of your time, you want to find exercises that fit these goals.  Depending on why this is your goal, machines may not be the best choice.

If you want to gain strength to use it in movements outside the gym environment, machines may not work too well. If someone needed your help pushing a car, for example, and your only mode of strengthening had been isolated movements from machines, you probably wouldn’t be too impressive with your help. In this scenario, you simply haven’t had the chance to incorporate different muscles to work together.

Your core strength is also a key component in strength. Machines in general do not address your core.  You will have much greater results when the core is also strengthened.

When you’re out to gain muscle mass, you’ll benefit the most when more muscles are incorporated within the movement. This will cause better balance and symmetry.

Take a barbell bench press versus a machine chest press for example. The barbell bench press has the prime moving muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps. However, there are also the muscles of the biceps, forearms, back and core that support and help control the movement throughout the motion. Because the bar is unattached to anything, more of the body contributes to the movement. This same motion performed on a chest press machine can be done without utilizing the supporting and stabilizing muscles.

What machines might do for you…

There may, however, be a case for machines to help you get bigger and stronger. Since the motion is in such a safe environment, you may be able to try a heavier load with less fear of injury.

Machines can also be used to strengthen the prime moving muscles to improve other exercises.  They can be included as finishing exercises to work the muscles after fatiguing the stabilizing muscles. 

Having the assistance of a qualified Personal Trainer to assess and design proper progression and periodization will help you gain the best results and understanding of how and when to incorporate machines.

“My season’s coming up. I need to hit the machines to get ready.”

What machines won’t do for you…

We often hit the gym to improve our skills for particular sports or fitness events. Machines may look appealing to use for this goal, but because machines don’t recruit other muscles that normally would be involved in these motions, they are often not the best choice.

For many sports and athletic activities, your training needs to be explosive and done as fast as possible.  This is unfortunately another miss with machines, since training should either mimic the movements that occur in your sport or dynamically use the muscles that are needed during your activity.

Your exercises should be in multiple planes of motion and have integration of your entire body throughout.

What machines might do for you…

However, there may be a way – even in this style of training – that machines could have a place.

In the phase of power training, when you train your body to push the hardest as fast as possible, machines can be used in a superset.

Here it’s a similar point to the goal of getting back in shape, except in this case you start with a stable exercise that could be on a machine to an explosive power exercise that you do as fast as you can. This way you put your body under load, and then recruit your reactive system to work as hard as you can. For the sake of safety and proper progression, I highly recommend having the supervision of a Personal Trainer.

The main reasons people pursue fitness are to lose weight, to increase their fitness level (be more active), to overcome injuries, to gain muscle mass and/or strength, or to improve performance in a sport or activity. There are many ways to assist with these goals.

As trainers, we understand that sometimes a gym member might want to focus on machines because of a comfortable familiarity when other forms of training seem unsafe and complicated.

Being new to fitness or new to a fitness facility can be overwhelming. You not only have to get acclimated to a new environment altogether, but there is also the challenge of maneuvering through a fitness floor to accomplish a workout.

Machines do have a purpose, but knowing why is important to achieving the desired results. To really know how to use machines and know if they are right for you, working with a Personal Trainer is the best way to find out. You will gain an understanding of how to move properly, avoid injury, use proper tempo and progression, and come to understand which equipment would benefit you the most.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to these professionals. They are well versed in proper body mechanics and program design. You won’t regret gaining the wisdom and understanding of knowing how to effectively progress toward your fitness goals.

Are you interested in hearing more about whether (and which) machines might be right for your current program and personal goals? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer his/her guidance and help you optimize your workout plan.

If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies,

Download the Core 3 Training Manual.

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The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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