Exercise choice is an art form and makes all the difference when in pursuit of your dream physique. Free weights will always have their place in fitness, and they should still make up a portion of your program, however for a lot of people they leave too much margin for error. Bad form and poor weight selection lead to stagnated gains and possible injury.
There are some incredible machines that ignite muscle growth and because of their mechanics, make it much easier to perform correctly and effectively. Here are the 7 best machines to employ into your workout:
7 Best Machines:
1. Linear Leg Press (45 degree angle)
The angle you perform this exercise at is just the most effective at contracting the target muscles of the quads. (Depending on the exact angle, there is also some glute activation too). Most important though, is the form you choose to perform the exercise. The back-rest should always be at the lowest point - mechanically this allows deeper range of motion. Feet should be shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly out. The knees should never drop in towards each other or flare out to the sides, but remain stable, pointing the same direction of your ankles and feet. You should lower the weight past 90 degrees at the knee (relative to thigh and calf), and never lock out at the top but keep a constant slow tempo throughout (2 secs down, 2 secs up). 12-15 reps, 4 sets. 60-90 secs rest.
2. Hack Squat
No other exercise will isolate your quads as much as the hack squat. Much the same as the linear leg press, your knees and feet should point in the same direction and never move in or out during the exercise. This exercise is a great opportunity to increase depth of range for your legs, as it is a relatively safe machine. Never lock out and always control the weight, lower it slowly to take advantage of the negative reps. Don't rest at the top or bottom but keep an even tempo throughout the set, this will increase tension on your quads and make the most out of the exercise. Going past 90 degrees at the knee is the goal, but if you can you must go even deeper, but remember the teaching points above! 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 60-90 secs rest.
3. Lying Hamstring Curl
Most gyms will have a seated hamstring curl, but few a lying hamstring curl. This machine allows much greater contraction of the target muscles and better range of motion. There should never be a rest at the bottom of the movement, and the range should be taken as far back as possible with a hold of a half second 'squeeze' to intensify the tension. Lowering should be slow and controlled on every single rep pivoting only at the knee without yanking the weight back up. The set should end when only a partial rep can be performed (approx. 50% full range). 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 60-90 secs rest.
4. Incline Chest Press
Free weights offer too much margin for error at times. Like discussed in the article highlighting The 5 Tips For Building a Bigger Chest, we have to make sure we hit each muscle from multiple angles. The Incline chest press machine is great at isolating the upper chest, and thickening out the top end of your frame. Like with most chest exercises, the elbows need to be as close to 90 degrees to your body as possible (think 'high elbows' during the set), in order to fully activate chest muscles. Never lock out at the top and always lower the weight slowly. With your grip, apply the force in-between the fore finger and thumb area of your hand, instead of the outer palm - this will help send tension to the chest, instead of the triceps. 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 30-45 secs rest.
5. Decline Chest Press
This exercise is often neglected, and mostly due to poor equipment availability in most gyms. To find one of these is fairly lucky and if you've never included it in your training then you are missing out! This angle will activate your chest like no other exercise, and spark new growth right in the place you need is most, the lower pectoral major. Make sure you keep your shoulders back and down, with your chest puffed up as much as possible. Again, don't lock out but you can squeeze your chest for a second at the top of the movement for added tension. Lower slowly as always and concentrate on form throughout as it is easy to squirm and shove the weight around on this machine. 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 30-45 secs rest.
6. T-Bar Row Machine
Rowing movements are going to add thickness to your back. Although the seated machine row is good, the T-bar row is a way more stressful exercise. This is because the free moving bar adds a free weight element to the movement, forcing you to stabilise a bit, and also the weight is always hanging, forcing constant tension onto the muscles holding it. Being in this supported machine allows you to focus more on contracting the target muscles, compared to using free weights. Grip should be what ever you feel most comfortable doing the exercise with. While keeping your chest elevated and head up, pull the weight as far back as possible on every rep then hold and squeeze at the top for a second. Lower the weight slowly, holding form, never just dropping it down (which is easy to do with this exercise). 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 30-45 secs rest.
7. Cable Row
This is still also a relatively rare machine, yet it is such a good exercise for the back. This one is all about getting your elbows as far back as you can while pinching your shoulder blades together hard. When starting the exercise, make sure your legs are only slightly bent to allow for a smooth free passage for the cable. Start bent forward at the hip with your arms stretched forward. Then slowly straighten up keeping your arms straight, and only pulling them in once your torso has become upright (90 degrees to floor) with your back arched, shoulders back and chest out. Bring your elbows as far back as you can with a big squeeze at the end, then repeat the entire process every rep, getting a very big stretch in the Lat muscles on your way down. 8-12 reps, 4 sets. 30-45 secs rest. (Use a wider hammer grip handle to allow elbows to go as far back as possible).
If you've hit a plateau with your current routine amongst your current machines, then it might be time to find somewhere a little more advanced. If you have to travel further to find the right equipment then it will always be worth it. Good brands of machines are Hammer Strength, Life Fitness and Gym80 - stay away from anything that says 'Techno Gym' on it!
BONUS: Decline Fly
This exercise can be done either on a specific Decline Fly machine or duplicated using a wide angle cable machine (high cable connection). This is a great exercise to solicit muscular adaption through a very unfamiliar range of motion. It is essentially a fly movement but instead of bringing your arms straight out in front of you they will meet much lower towards your mid section. The exercise is also nick-named the 'Eagle-Fly', as the movement and arm positioning mimics the wing shape of an Eagle. Start the movement with your arms slightly bent, with elbows around neck height and pointing to the ceiling. While keeping your chest puffed out and back arched, contract the chest by bringing the arms down towards your midsection, squeezing your chest as hard as possible at peek contraction. Do not let the chest drop inwards. 10-15 reps, 4 sets. 30-45 secs rest.
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