In recent years, fitness has become more about function and performance and less about physique than ever before. These days, nailing power cleans or showing off flawless deadlift form earns more gym cred than having a visible six-, eight-, or whatever-pack.
As functional fitness grows more and more popular, the sea of gym machines that isolate specific muscle groups have lost their once coveted place in people’s workouts and been replaced by a new generation of machines and equipment. But which deserve a spot in your next workout?
Gym Machines: A Love-Hate Relationship
Despite their recent fall from grace, there’s no black-and-white answer about whether traditional gym machines are good or bad.
According to New York-based coach Kelvin Gary, C.S.C.S., some of the machine hate is well-deserved: “We know that they don’t help you train in a way that functionally ties together muscle groups that work together in life and in sport.”
If you want a more complete workout that activates the core and stabilizer muscles, you’re better off with a squat. However, if your sole goal is to build bigger quads, then the leg extension machine will get the job done.
The other issue: Many gym-goers don’t use the machines properly. “Most machines today are made with good thought in regards to biomechanics,” says Long Island-based physical therapist and strength coach, Michael Camp Ph.D., P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S. It’s the user that makes machines unsafe, not the piece of equipment itself.
Experts do agree, though, that machines can be extremely helpful for beginners and those with injuries.
“Some people need to learn the mind-muscle connection of the movement first, which is easier to learn through a machine,” says Philadelphia-based personal trainer, Joe Pepe, C.P.T. For someone that’s never worked out in their life, using a chest press machine can help them learn to activate the right muscles before moving on to a bench press.
Plus, when you need to avoid using certain muscles and joints because of an injury—but want to maintain strength elsewhere—using machines to isolate certain muscle groups comes in handy.
Gym Equipment Worth Using
Old-school pushing, pulling, and pressing gym machines aside, there’s now a slew of out-of-the-box pieces of equipment popping up in gyms that can add lots of value to your fitness program. Here are five pieces of funky equipment you may have been too intimidated to try that trainers definitely want you to use.
Though it may look like a towel rack, the VersaClimber is actually a great cardio conditioning tool that also puts your arms, legs, and core to work. (It’s like a never-ending climbing wall.) “It helps us work on crawling, a primitive pattern that we lose from sitting behind desks,” says Gary. The VersaClimber is like a stair stepper that gets your arms involved, too, so you’re essentially doing an upright bear crawl. Now how’s that for functional, eh?
2. Sled (a.k.a. Prowler)
Pushing or pulling a weighted sled across the turf is a great way to build total-body strength. Plus, it’s what Gary calls “self-limiting,” which means you can push yourself and go heavy without risk. Go too heavy on a squat and you can get stuck at the bottom of the movement with lots of pressure on your back; go too heavy on the sled and it simply won’t budge.
Check out five of our go-to moves:
Gary recommends adding a couple sets of exercises like marches and pulls to your strength workouts.
It may not look like much, but according to Pepe, the landmine is the most underrated piece of gym equipment. All you have to do is secure the end of a barbell into the landmine fixture at the base of a power rack and you can do all sorts of total-body exercises in all planes of motion.
If you’re looking for a serious test of fitness, try landmine thrusters. “They create a huge metabolic demand, and are easier to perform—and more shoulder-friendly—than a barbell thruster,” he says. For core and total-body stability, try landmine anti-rotations. Or, to challenge your lower and upper body (and your coordination), pair split squats and rows.
Not only does lifting a big ol’ bag of sand build overall power and strength, but it also improves stability more than lifting a kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell. “Fighting the awkwardness of the shifting sand builds synergistic muscle strength,” says Camp. Working out with sandbags fires up your stabilizer muscles and core in a major way.
On lower-body days, try front-rack squats or lunges; on upper-body days, try overhead presses or bent-over rows. As you progress, try sandbag cleans, chops, and swings.
5. Battle Ropes
We know, battle ropes are exhausting. But they’re well worth every heart-pumping moment, toning your arms, legs, and core, while boosting your cardio. “People think there’s just one or two exercises, get bored, and move on too quickly,” Gary says.
In addition to the standard moves like alternating waves or double-arm waves, Gary suggests trying circles, side-to-side waves, or even doing jumping jacks with the ropes. Try a few 30-second intervals with 30 to 60 seconds of rest in between.