When it comes to getting in shape, your best bet is to find a specialty gym that’s all about functional fitness (it’ll be filled with power racks, platforms, and barbells) and a coach to teach you the ropes. But with training often costing hundreds per month and big-box gyms offering the promise of fat loss for a fraction of the price, it’s not surprising most people opt for the latter.
While many coaches dislike them, machines do have a place in your workout routine, especially if you’re a beginner, says Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive, and owner of Sean D Thrive. But it’s also easy to get lazy and complacent on machines, he says. And that can hurt more than just your progress.
Be wary of these 7 weight-machine traps the next time you hit the gym.
Mistake #1: You’re Spending Too Much Time On The Wrong Machines
In the absence of a coach, machines are great for teaching you movement patterns of complex exercises, says De Wispelaere. Take the squat, for example. You might not have a perfect squat, but with a machine assisting you with good form, you can learn the exercise and build the strength you need to do it in the free weight space, he says.
But where you’re generally wasting your time is on any machine that only works one muscle, like the leg extension or the hamstring curl. While these machines can be beneficial for experienced bodybuilders, if you’re a beginner, you likely don’t have a strong enough base for these isolation exercises to be really effective, according to De Wispelaere.
Working multiple muscles is better for revving your metabolism than isolating one at a time, says De Wispelaere.
Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted
De Wispelaere recommends seeking out machines that make you move multiple joints at once, like the the leg sled (which involves your hip and knee) and the lat pulldown (which involves your elbow and shoulder). These will give you the best burn for your buck and help you learn more complex exercises at the same time.
Mistake #2: You’re Putting Excess Pressure On Your Joints
When you use machines that only work one muscle at a time, you’re not just minimizing your efficiency; you’re also putting yourself at risk for injury.
Take the leg extension machine, for example. “A lot of people love this one because it burns and gives you a good feeling of accomplishment,” says De Wispelaere. But it also puts a lot of pressure on your knee joints, which could lead to injury, he says.
If you want to zero in on specific muscles, De Wispeleaere recommends ditching the machines and performing isolation exercises with dumbbells or just your bodyweight. A functional movement like a walking lunge will put your knee in a more natural position and still give you that serious burn in your quad, he says.
Mistake #3: Your Heart Is Set On A Machine That Doesn’t Match Your Bod
In theory, weight machines are meant to accommodate all sizes. However, in practice, that’s not actually true.
While you might be able to adjust certain pieces on a machine, everyone’s body is different. “Whether because of genetics or mobility work, your shoulder might move differently than mine, which means putting both of us in the same rigid setup is going to be a bad experience for one of us,” explains De Wispelaere.
Forcing yourself to adopt an unnatural-feeling position is likely to lead to pain, and not the kind you want to push through. “There’s a difference between the discomfort of tough exercise and pain,” he says. “If you feel a sharp stinging, tugging, pinching, or pulling, stop what you’re doing immediately.”
Fortunately, there are a ton of different machines and exercises that work similar sets of muscles. Take the pec fly, for example: If this very specific machine setup causes you pain, try moving to a cable fly or bench press—or even do pushups—to target your chest.
Mistake #4: You’re Not Sizing The Machine Correctly
This one is simple. If the machine is set up for a size that’s too large or too small for you, you’re not going to maximize your muscle development, says De Wispelaere
If it’s too big, you’ll be forced to reach and wriggle your way into completing an exercise, which can lead to unnecessary pressure on your joints or the use of muscles that shouldn’t be involved, he says. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to detect when you’re over-reaching.
What’s trickier to pick up on is if the machine is sized slightly too small. It may feel pretty normal, but you won’t be accomplishing a full range of motion with each exercise, De Wispelaere says. “This can be damaging because you’ll be priming a bad movement pattern, and not building well-rounded strength in your entire muscle.”
On the side of each machine is a diagram of how the exercise should look. If you don’t look exactly like that diagram, consider it your cue that something needs to change.
Mistake #5: You’re Only Using Machines That Move In One Direction
The human body was meant to move in all 360 degrees, but most machines have you moving only from front to back or up and down, says De Wispelaere. This can limit your muscle development and your real-world strength.
When you do things like put groceries away or play with your kids, you don’t have a metal exoskeleton keeping your movements in line, he says. Instead, your body needs to stabilize against gravitational forces all around it.
In order to keep your body performing at its peak, try working cable machines into your regular routine. The cable pulley allows you to perform exercises at a variety of angles (pulling from down low, up high, shoulder level, or varying degrees in between) and in a number of ways (twisting, pushing, pulling and pressing), says De Wispleaere. You’ll also have to stabilize the cable throughout the movement, which will help you the next time you need to shovel snow or lift a suitcase into the overhead compartment of an airplane, for example.
Mistake #6: You’re Resting In The Machine
It’s tempting to rest between sets by sitting in the machine you’re using. Sometimes, it feels necessary, just so someone doesn’t come along and snag your spot.
But if you spend most of your day seated—from commuting, to work, to relaxing on the couch—it’s not a good idea to park your butt at the gym, too, according to De Wispelaere.
Instead, he recommends active recovery between sets. By getting up to perform mobility exercises or stretches in front of the machine instead of staying seated, you’ll maximize your time at the gym without sacrificing your spot.
In order to keep from fatiguing the muscles you’re trying to work, mobilize the opposite half of your body, De Wispelaere says. If you’re between sets on the leg sled or leg press, for example, try this thoracic mobility move to help combat poor posture:
Take a deep breath. Keeping your hand in place, exhale and roll your left shoulder towards the ceiling, twisting your upper back. Hold for a second. Inhale and rotate back to the starting position. Repeat for 5 breaths on each side.
Mistake #7: You’re Not Using The Weight Machines As Training Wheels
“The primary role of machines should be to help you get acquainted and comfortable with movement patterns,” says De Wispelaere. Think of them as training wheels, not a long-term plan for fitness development.
And just like training wheels, you want to slowly wean yourself off of them. If you’re a beginner at the gym, De Wispelaere recommends spending one to two weeks focused on using the machines to learn. Then, starting in week 3, after you’ve primed your movement patterns and built a small amount of strength, transition to performing a set or two of the bodyweight versions of the exercises you’re doing. For example, if you’ve been using the leg sled or press, try a bodyweight squat. Or if you’ve been using the pec fly, try dropping down into a pushup.
As you get increasingly comfortable with the bodyweight movements, start to add light loads—only a few pounds at first—by grabbing some dumbbells or a medicine ball, he suggests.