A staple at many gyms, weight machines get plenty of hate from some people in the fitness community. And it’s true—compared to free weights, the machines have a few shortcomings. For one, most don’t properly fit all body types. They also hone in on just one muscle group at a time (this burns fewer calories), which can make it easy for you to develop strength imbalances. Free weights, on the other hand, tend to engage more muscles (especially your core and small stabilizing muscles), burn more calories, and encourage more natural movement.
Still, some machines can fit well into your routine, says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. The machines can make strength training more accessible to newbies and help you focus on specific muscle groups that may need some extra love, she says.
Whether you’re a strength-training spring chicken or a weight-room regular, here are the six weight machines trainers say deserve a spot in your workouts.
1. Assisted Pullup Machine
Pullups work your core, entire back (trapezius, rhomboids, and lats), shoulders, and biceps—but most people can’t even do one, says Paul Sklar C.S.C.S., founder of Prescriptive Fitness in New York City. By using the assisted pullup machine, you can gradually add weight in five to 10-pound increments until you’re strong enough to do them on your own. And trust us, this move is worth it, since adequate back strength helps to improve posture, according to Erica Suter, C.S.C.S.
How to use it: Hold onto the padded bars with palms facing away from you and hands wider than your shoulders. Place one knee (or foot) and then the other onto the assistance platform or bar and allow it to lower toward the ground. (Your shoulders should be directly over your hips and knees.) Engaging your abs and relaxing your shoulders down, use your back and biceps to pull yourself up until your chin is above the bars. Keep your hips directly under your shoulders and your head in line with your spine. Lower all the way back to starting position so that your arms are fully extended before repeating. (Focus on contracting your glutes throughout the exercise and you can even get a bit of a butt workout in, too.)
2. Lying Hamstring Curl
On days that you deadlift, adding the lying hamstring curl machine to your routine can ensure you hit all the parts of your hamstrings, says Nick Tumminello, C.S.C.S. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that lying leg curls hit parts of the hamstrings that deadlifts don’t.
“Hamstring strength is especially helpful to women, who are more quadriceps-dominant and tend to have weaker hamstrings, which makes them more prone to knee injury than men,” Tumminello says.
How to use it: Lie face-down on the machine with your hip joint on top of the apex of the pads. Adjust the pad across your lower legs so it hits the bottom of your calves. Keeping your legs hip-width apart, hold onto the handles, exhale, and curl your heels up and in as close to your glutes as possible. Engage your core and inhale as you slowly extend your legs back to starting position. Let the weights lightly touch the stack—but not fully rest on it—before performing your next rep.
3. Leg Press
The leg press machine eliminates the upper-body involvement and torso and spine stabilization required for squats, so you can really zone in on your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. “It’s a safe way to get beginners or those with little lower-body strength pushing some serious weight before progressing to squats and lunges,” says Suter. Perkins agrees: “In the early stages of strength development, I find this machine very helpful to improve overall leg function and strength.”
Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat
How to use it: Sit in the machine and place your feet on the platform a little wider than shoulder-width distance apart. Remove the safety bar and exhale as you push through your heels to extend your legs as much as possible without locking your knees. Your torso should make a perfect 90-degree angle with your legs. As you inhale, lower the platform until you form a 90-degree angle at your knees. (This is key, says Perkins.) Keep your hips and pelvis firmly in the seat of the machine and your torso stable against its back. Exhale and repeat.
4. Cable Lat Pulldown
“This might be my most favorite machine of all because you can’t mimic this movement in any other way,” says Perkins. “Your lower body is anchored, allowing you to put your energy and focus into activating the upper-body muscles.” Lat pull-downs are a safe and effective way to strengthen your back (lats, traps, and rear deltoids), core, and shoulders, which can help prevent future neck and shoulder injuries.
How to use it: Sit down at the machine, adjust the pad over your thighs so it’s snug, and grab the bar overhead. You can use either a shoulder-width, reverse grip (palms facing toward you) or a wider-than shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Keep your shoulders relaxed down and away from your ears and engage your core so your torso doesn’t sway back and forth as you move the bar. Bend at the elbows to pull the bar down to your upper chest (never behind your head). Slowly extend your arms to release the bar back to starting position. Repeat.
5. Cable Station
By switching up the cable positions and attachments on this machine, you can work pretty much all of your muscle groups—including your core. “Cable stations allow for a more natural and functional movement,” says Sklar. He likes using the machine to do cable rows with alternating reverse lunges, which work your core, quads, glutes, hamstrings, and back.
How to use it: To perform Sklar’s row-lunge combo move, set the cable height so it’s positioned between your hips and lower ribs. Attach the close-grip row handle (which looks like a triangle with two handles) or a straight bar. Grip the handle and step back into a reverse lunge. Drop your back knee to hover just above the floor so both knees form 90-degree angles. As you lunge back, keep your torso engaged and straight, and bend at the elbows to row the cable back toward your lower ribs. Step back into the starting position, keeping your core steady and slowly releasing the cable back out in front of you. Repeat by stepping back with the opposite foot.
6. Dual Cable Cross Machine
Similar to single cable stations, the dual cable cross can be adjusted to train just about every muscle in the body. When each handle you use is attached to its own weight stack, you can’t cheat with your dominate side, says Kyle Brown, C.S.C.S. Brown likes using the cable cross machine for the standing chest fly, which hones in on your core, pecs, and deltoids.
How to use it: Adjust the cables to shoulder-height. Grab the handles and step forward with one foot. Your arms will be fully-extended out to your sides. Lean forward slightly from the waist and keep a bend in your elbows and your shoulders back and down as you press your hands towards each other directly in front of your chest. Engaging your core and chest, inhale and allow your arms to open up until you feel a stretch in your chest. Exhale and push your arms back together. Repeat.