The past few years our once loved weighted machines have become a little more shunned in the fitness community. We don’t agree and think its time for the machines to make a comeback! Amazing pieces of equipment such as the leg press or pec dec have been slammed for not being able to target certain muscle groups like free weights can, but in fact, they were never designed to do that in the first place!
We are still massive believers in compound movements, they are essential in all strength-based programs but we are here to show you that the machines have their purpose and can certainly help you to achieve all of your fitness goals.
First, you have to understand the difference between compound exercises and an isolation exercise.
A compound lift is an exercise that works multiple muscle groups at the same time (more than 2). For example, a squat can target your core, quadriceps, glutes and calves all at once. The benefit of a compound exercise is that they are an efficient use of your time, burn more calories, improve intramuscular coordination, elevate the heart rate quickly, improve flexibility, improve strength and assist in gaining muscle mass.
An isolation lift is an exercise that only involves/flexes one joint and one or a limited number of muscle groups such as a bicep curl, lateral raise and chest fly. Benefits of isolation lifts include targeting specific muscle groups that might be underworked, fixing body imbalances, assistance in physical therapy after injury, activation of specific muscles and can assist you with rotation workouts in the gym (exhausting one muscle group so that the next day it can rest and you can focus on other muscle groups) which can reduce your risk of injury.
Now that you can see that there are benefits of both types of exercises, let’s break it down further into some common isolation exercises and how you can perform them correctly so that they benefit you the most.
Leg Extension Machine
Where it works: The leg extension machine is fantastic for growing your quadriceps which are four large muscles directly on top of your thighs, between your hips and knee.
When to use it: If you are performing large lifts like squats and deadlifts and struggling to see improvement past a certain weight then specifically strengthening your quads through accessory work could be your answer to break through that barrier. Try adding these in after you have completed your compound exercises on leg day.
Tips: Aim to use this machine one of two ways. You can either perform a weight that feels light quickly and get a pump going or choose a challenging, heavy weight and perform them slow and controlled. Both styles will have you feeling the burn. Of course to avoid injury always make sure you adjust the machine so that your knees are in line with the machines axis.
Hamstring Curl Machine (laying or standing)
Where it works: The hamstring curl machine targets the hamstrings which are another large muscle group on the back of your legs between your glutes and your knees. Often a hamstring curl machine will help target a small section of the hammies that is hard to hit with those big compound lifts.
When to use it: Hamstrings help with our explosive power so if you want to improve that then it is definitely a good isolation exercise to include. Just like above with the leg extension, use these machines after your compound lifts to burn out the legs.
Tips: There are standing and laying hamstring curl machines. Try to alternate using both styles so that you can see improvements. Standing hamstring curl machines often work one leg at a time so can be great at fixing any strength imbalances between the two legs. Always try to squeeze at the top of the movement and then slowly control the leg as it stretches down.
Calf Raise Machine
Where it works: There are all different variations of calf raise machines from standing to seated. Each of them hit a slightly different area of the calf muscle (gastrocnemius and soleus).
When to use it: Many people tend to forget about their calves so it’s a great addition to throw into the end of your leg day. The benefit of the machine calf raise is that it will not require you to use any grip strength, allowing you to go much heavier than you likely could using free weights.
Tips: Always control your weight and avoid any bouncing movements.
Where it works: The pec dec hits an area of the chest which is used very little during exercises like bench press, the very inner area of the chest muscles.
When to use it: You can use this machine anywhere throughout your workout. Some people enjoy using this as an activation exercise before your big lifts and some prefer to use it as a finisher to your typical chest workout.
Tips: Try super-setting these with bench press for a crazy chest pump. Do your bench heavier for 3-5 reps and superset with a lighter pec dec for 10-15 reps!
Where it works: The triceps consist of three muscles. The tricep pushdown machine is fantastic at hitting all three of these in a really controlled way.
When to use it: Use these at any point during your arm day if you have one or hit the tris as a finisher for your chest workout.
Tips: The best thing about this exercise is that you can get a really good squeeze. Perform the movement slow and controlled and try to squeeze as hard as you can at the bottom. When you return to the top of the movement do not relax your triceps, keep the pressure the whole time!
As you can see, there are tonnes of isometric machine-based exercises that you can choose from and they can all benefit your strength training session!