Machine Training 101
Here’s the scoop on machine training to build max muscle. Apply these four tips to turn these machine movements into your own personal assembly line.
Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength & Conditioning
Nearly 15 years ago, I interviewed professional bodybuilder Milos Sarcev for a story I was writing on machine training. Many, if not all, of the things we discussed back then still hold true today. Namely, if you want to overload a muscle or group of muscles, machines are incredible tools and should be found in every bodybuilder’s routine. Sure, free weights are irreplaceable, but machines should rightfully have their place in your plan as long as you know how to use them to your advantage in conjunction with free-weight training.
Benefits of Machine Training
1) Overload the target muscle. Machines — whether the kind with the weight stack or the plate-loaded variety — don’t require much stabilizer muscle involvement because you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight, which allows you to put maximum focus on the target muscle. This also ensures that you can completely annihilate the target muscle as stabilizers won’t tire out before the target muscle does.
2) No Spot, No Problem. Although proper form is always important, you don’t typically need a spotter even when using heavy weights on most machines because the path is already set for you. The main consideration is to make sure you adjust the machine to fit your own height and limb length or you’ll put your joints under unnecessary and awkward stress that could lead to injury.
3) Intensity Rules. Many pin-loaded machines are easy to use with intensity techniques such as drop sets. Simply pull the pin upon failure, go a few plates lighter (roughly 20%) and continue doing reps until you reach failure once again.
4) Don’t Bottom Out. Never let the weight stack touch down between reps, which takes tension off the target muscle. Slow the descent of the weight so that you can smoothly reverse direction without losing tension on the target muscle.
Do It Right: Stand inside the squat press and place your shoulders squarely under the pads. Make sure your feet are flat, with your abs tight, back arched and chest up. Holding the handles, squat down until your thighs approach 90-degree angles, then powerfully press yourself up to the standing position.
Power Pointer: The closest machine version of a squat we’ve seen, you’re essentially leg pressing through the floor.
Lying Leg Curl
Do It Right: Lie facedown on a leg-curl machine and position your Achilles’ tendons below the padded lever, your knees just off the edge of the bench. Make sure your knees are slightly bent in the start. Contract your hams to raise your feet toward your glutes in a strong but deliberate motion, squeezing the muscles at the top, then lower under control.
Power Pointer: Keep your toes pointed and feet aligned; don’t turn your ankles in or out.