Walk into a gym these days and there’s a whole lot more going on than dumbbells and treadmills. In many cases, the gym floor is flooded with all sorts of specialized machines, from those designed to help you get your cardio on to others created to strengthen specific muscles or level up your resistance training routine.
And while some of these innovative gym machines really can enhance your fitness, others just aren’t worth your time. Here, trainers break down the best and worst gym machines so that you can make the most of every minute of your workouts.
The Best Gym Machines
As long as you’re using them correctly (form is everything, people!), these gym machines will help you make those gains.
1. Leg press
According to Josh Honore, C.P.T., STRIDE and Row House trainer, the leg press machine is a surefire and effective way to target all the major muscle groups in your legs. It’s also ideal for all fitness levels. “The leg press really allows for the application of high stress to the muscles of the legs but the support of the trunk significantly reduces fatigue as well as the risk of injury, especially when compared to barbell exercise like the back squat,” he says. Just make sure your knees don’t cave in or roll out during the press.
If the hamster wheel feel of running on the treadmill just isn’t for you, upgrade your cardio routine with rowing. In addition to being low-impact (your joints will thank you!), it also happens to be a full-body workout. “Rowing engages 86 percent of your body’s muscles, giving you a dynamic workout that’s a mix of cardio and strength,” says Caley Crawford, CPT, director of education for Row House. It’s also the only machine that allows for triple extension (full extension of the ankles, knees, and hips), which contributes to better performance in jumping, running, Olympic weightlifting, and other explosive movements. To maintain top-notch form, keep your back upright, your core engaged, and your feet securely strapped in (you should be able to still lift your heels).
3. Cable machines with moveable arms
These large workout machines are beloved by trainers because of their versatility, allowing you to work both your upper and lower body with a few adjustments and different handle attachments.
Another perk of working with cables: “They lack the stability that most other exercise machines offer,” says Erin Mahoney, C.P.T., founder of online training certification course EMAC Certifications. “This means you’ll be more likely to improve strength in the larger muscles while also working the smaller, stabilizing muscles that are instrumental in avoiding injury.”
Trainers roll their eyes at the following gym machines for a few reasons, so you’re best off leaving them out of your workout routine. In addition to being unnatural and ineffective, some can even increase your risk of injury.
You can kiss that dreaded infinite staircase goodbye. “Stairmasters only work a limited range of motion and most people lean on the handles for support, disengaging the core and hurting their posture,” says Crawford. Instead, go for walking lunges. This exercise has a better range of motion while still working out your lower body (which is why you’re on the Stairmaster in the first place, right?). “Another way to think about it: lunges will get you good at climbing stairs but climbing stairs doesn’t necessarily make you good at lunges,” she adds.
2. Hip abductor/adductor machine
“The hip abduction itself is not a bad machine,” says Honore. “It just doesn’t do what many people think it does.” While most people may turn to the seated weight machine to strengthen and grow their booties, the muscles at work are actually the external rotators and abductors of the hip. Good for hip stability but less than optimal for booty gains. Instead, he recommends doing barbell hip thrusts to really maximize the glute work.
3. Smith machine
The Smith machine is controversial, and Matt Bahen, C.S.C.S., owner of S3E Performance Fitness, recommends avoiding it. “The fact that the bar path is locked into a perfect up and down motion doesn’t translate to natural human movement and, honestly, it’s one of the most incorrectly used pieces of equipment I’ve seen,” he says.
Get more dynamic movement for squats, deadlifts, and more by using free weights, like kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells. “Being able to properly move an object that is external to your body through space is one of the most functional things we do every day as humans,” Bahen says. “Need to pick up that kid sitting on the floor? That’s a deadlift. Need to put something up on a shelf? That’s an overhead press.” See where he’s going with this?
The elliptical tops many a trainer’s list of worst workout machines. “I know, I know, some people love their elliptical but much like the Smith machine, the movement pattern for the elliptical is one not really replicated in nature so it’s not worth the time spent on it in my opinion,” says Bahen. Try an inclined treadmill walk for a low-impact way to get your heart rate up—include intervals too. Better yet, turn to the rowing machine for your next sweat, Crawford suggests.
5. Recumbent bike
Featuring a reclining seat and backrest, this stationary bike can be found in many cardio rooms. However, there seem to be much more effective ways to get a cardiovascular workout in. “Many people go for this cardio machine because of its stability,” says Mahoney. “This is perfectly fine if you’re in rehab or have other injuries preventing you from other forms of cardio. However, for the average exerciser, it makes movement dysfunctions worse while also being low in caloric burn.” Plus, the seated position is less than ideal for most people, who sit a lot throughout the day already, since overactive hip flexors are commonly the culprit for lower back pain and poor activation of the glutes and abs. For a low-impact workout, hit the treadmill for an inclined walk or row instead.