A Guide to Resistance MachinesBy Adam Sinicki
When you enter the gym you will notice that it is very much segregated into sections. There's the free weights - usually full of Arnie-types who are bursting out of their clothes, there's the resistance machines where your average Joes and Josephines hang out, there's the exercise mats where incredibly fit women bend into a range of erotic shapes (and expect you not to look at them...) and then there are the treadmills where very intense individuals run for hours on end.
Normally here at the Biomatrix we focus on the free weights, with the odd dalliance into the treadmills and exercise mats. But that's not to say that the resistance machines aren't without merit too. If you are new to working out then these devices will offer you a safe and easy way to get started, but even if you're a seasoned pro you can benefit from the way the machines are able to very precisely target specific muscle groups. To make up for lost time then, here we will look at each of the resistance machines and what they do - like a map to an uncharted part of the gym.
Understanding Resistance MachinesFirst though a little bit about these machines and what they do. Basically, resistance machines are machines that you sit in in order to lift weights. These weights are attached to cables and pulley systems which are attached to various hinges with handles on the end. You pull/push/twist the handles, and that then lifts the weights. You can quickly alter the amount of weight you are lifting by moving a pin to section off the number of weights you want to lift, and this allows you to adjust the difficulty.
Bodybuilders proper prefer free weights. The reason for this is that they more closely mimic the way you use your muscles in real life - in unison. Because you are standing up and having to balance yourself and the weight, this makes life more difficult and it means you train all of the supporting muscles as well as just the 'main' one - and that triggers more positive hormone production too.
However there are some benefits to using resistance machines, and they certainly have their place - even for pros. Here are a couple of them...
Benefits of Resistance Machines
How to Use Resistance MachinesEach of the machines works by basically providing you with a set of handles attached to cables and a pile of weights. You need to find the pile of weights as that's how you adjust the resistance. They're normally just next to the seat or you can trace back the cable to find them. Now to alter the weight you pull out a pin type piece of metal attached to a springy cable and insert it into one of the holes. If you want to avoid an embarrassing moment, start very light at first and then work yourself up until you get to roughly your limit.
You want the weight on each machine to be high enough that you are able to do about 8-10 repetitions before you can't do any more. Then the standard way to use the machine is to do that three times with a short pause in between. That's three 'sets' of 8-10 'reps' - so you've done around 30 in total. You can increase intensity other ways, such as reducing your rest time, or by continuing to go after you've reached your breaking point by adjusting the weight, but these three sets are the 'standard' way to train.
A List of Resistance MachinesThis is by no means a comprehensive list of resistance machines. However I will add to this list over time, so if there's something you don't see here come back in a few months and you might find it's popped up. For the most part though this will tell you what you need to know and provide a basic guide to resistance machines:
The chest press is much like the bench press. The difference is that you are sat up and pushing the handles out in front of you. This trains the pecs of course, as well as the shoulders and triceps. It doesn't engage the core or the traps quite as much as a regular bench press and isn't as good quite simply unless you are using it for a drop set.
The pec deck is basically a machine that allows you to do flies. You do this by pulling to pads to meet in front of you. This trains the pecs in a very isolated fashion, and particularly the outsides of the pecs.
The shoulder press is essentially a chest press except where you press the weights up instead of out in front of you. This is very useful for those who struggle to get heavy weights in position in order to do free weight shoulder press normally.
These are basically just bicep curls using a resistance machine. You perform these by pulling a handle which operates a hinge and lifts weights. Meanwhile your arm will rest on a pad much like a preacher curl making it a very effective way to isolate just the biceps. Unfortunately this is quite often a very awkward machine because the handles will rarely be suited to your exact trajectory when you curl due to differing arm lengths.
This is sort of the 'oposite' of biceps curls. Here you sit in a very similar position, with a similar rest for your upper arms, but you are now holding the weights on top and then pushing down on them. So your arms start bent and end up straight.
Lat Pull Down
A lat pull down is a machine that mimics a pull up - only here you are secured in place and you pull the bar down to you rather than pulling yourself up. Here the cable is attached directly to the weights and this means that it wobbles around and requires stabilizing just like free weights. In other words the lat pull down doesn't isolate the lats in the same way as say, the rowing machine, meaning that this is just as good for full-body development as are free weights. You can also do much more than just lat pull downs using the machine - and it can be used to train biceps, or to do rows as well or even tricep extensions.
'Rowing Machine' is a phrase that can refer to two devices - either the CV rowing machine, or a resistance machine that sees you puling handles in toward you while being stabilized by a pad in front of you. It isolates the pecs, and arguably the traps to a degree.
In the leg extension machine you sit down and put your legs between two circular pads - one goes on your upper leg underneath and above the knee, the other goes in front of your leg below the knee by your shin. You then swing the lower weight up by 'extending' your leg (hence the name) and this targets the quadriceps at the tops of your legs.
Here you train the hamstrings by curling them up behind you, pushing a round pad with your calf up to your buttocks as you do thus strengthening your hamstrings.
Here you stand with pads on your shoulders and the balls of your feet on a small platform. The idea is to let your heels drop below your toes, and then to push up with them bringing yourself onto tip toes and lifting the weights on your shoulders as you do. This is perhaps the best way to train the calves and just as good as using free weights. It does however result in huge red marks on your shoulders that look like you've been fighting a wolverine. Either cool or unpleasant depending on your point of view.
Here you have pads either on the outside of your thigh or on the inside, and you pivot them outwards (as though flashing your groin) or pull them inwards (coyly) respectively. Some variations have you standing up rather than sitting down. Either way stings a lot, and it's useful seeing as many bodybuilders will forget to train their hips and seeing as this is tricky to do with free weights.
Cable Machine/Cable Crossover
The cable machine does away with the hinges and handles and instead just gives you some adjustable weights connected to a cable. Different handles and attachments can then be clipped on, and you can alter the height of the cables. There are also normally two cables opposite each other, which means that you can do bilateral movements such as cable flies. This is one of the most diverse and useful machines in any gym and it's again one that has the same merits as using free weights.
You can for instance use this like the pec deck by pull two sets of handles in to meet in the middle from a crucifix position, or you can use them like a chest press by pushing them out in fromt of you. Set the cable low down and use just one and you can do single or double arm curls, or set it to start in the top position and you can push down on it hinging at the elbows to train the triceps. Also for triceps is the 'pullover' where you face away from the cables and start with the handle behind your head before pulling it over you and out in front.
The ab crunch allows you to crunch, but here you are pressing against additional resistance in the form of a pad attached to some weights. It's no different to doing regular crunches, but it's harder so that makes it useful for bodybuilders who don't want to do 1,000,000 sit ups every day.
TermsTo finish off our guide to resistance machines, here's a few terms you might encounter when dealing with resistance machines:
Isolation: Isolation is what many of the resistance machines achieves. Essentially this means training just one or two group of muscles specifically rather than letting other muscles/momentum chip in to 'help'. It's great if you really want to hit one muscle group hard, but generally it's best not to use only isolation as it excludes the important supporting muscles we need in every day movements.
Bilateral/Unilateral: This means you use both hands/legs at a time, or just one respectively. Bilateral exercises are quicker to perform generally.
Converging: When you look at the list of resistance machines in your gym you'll note that some say 'converging' at the start. This then means that you work one arm at a time, but can alternate the way you might when doing bicep curls. This doesn't really mean much and is mostly a matter of preference, but seeing as converging machines can be used unilaterally too it's nice they give you the choice.
Smiths: The smiths machine is like some kind of hybrid between bench press and chest press - letting you bench press as normal, but having the bar itself on rails meaning it isolates the movement more and allowing for a fail-safe that catches the weight if you drop it. Useful for when you want to increase your bench press but don't have a spotter around to help you.