America’s always been infatuated with the comeback story.
Iconic movies like Rocky and Rudy have immortalized it; we revel in the undergods and ride their stories for weeks and months on end.
Unfortunately, when a comeback story transforms into a mainstay, it loses its luster.
If the comeback is as American as it gets, so is our obsession with demonizing.
Whether it’s because we enjoy doing it or it’s so inherently coded in our DNA that we must do it to survive, we do it and we do it gladly.
How many headlines have you seen that read that claimed carbs will make you fat? And fat will make you fat? And kale is the greatest thing you can shove into your mouth. Fruit will destroy any chance of you getting lean. Consuming gluten will kill you. And organic calories don’t matter.
The mad science never ends. It continues on the training front as the demonization turns into ludicrosity. We’ve all heard them:
- Back squats will make your spine explode.
- Curling in the squat rack will make you public enemy number one.
- Foam rolling is the most important thing you can do.
- Foam rolling makes no difference.
- Body part splits are a waste of time
- Steady state cardio will kill your gains (excuse us, we mean gainzzz).
The list goes on and on.
And ever since “functional” training went mainstream a few years back, exercise machines have been beaten and battered. Their reputation has been dragged through the mud as they’ve been undeservingly given a bad rap.
Enough’s enough. This slander has got to end.
DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK, THEY’VE BEEN HERE FOR YEARS.
From this moment forward, we are dubbing this year, The Return of The Machine. The comeback of the plate-loaded and pin-loaded variations. This is Hammer Strength’s homecoming.
Since their existence, exercise machines have been attached to the stigma of bodybuilding.
Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vince Gironda. Frank Zane. Franco Columbo. Lou Ferrigno: these guys are legends.
In their prime, spectators marveled at their physiques as if they were cut straight from granite. Gym enthusiasts mimicked their every step for the slightest hope they could garner even a quarter of their aesthetic success.
These guys were the heavyweight champions of the world, and then, like all professional sports, the competition became stiffer.
So, we anted up.
Training became more advanced, drugs became more effective, nutrition became smarter, and bodybuilders had to get even bigger, even leaner, even more vascular.
By the time the year 2000 hit, Mr. Olympia competitors no longer resembled superheroes out of the comic books. Now, they were in a whole new league of their own.
Dorian Yates made Captain America look like an average bro. Ronnie Coleman’s sheer size (pictured, right) humbled the Hulk.
Public opinion started to waiver.
Outside of the niche of bodybuilding, the masses no longer idolized these giants. The shock and awe was still there, surely, but no longer was the desire to achieve their looks. As if they even could, if they wanted to.
America resorted back to what it’s good at: the art of demonizing.
Buzzwords like “tight” and “bulky” became a staple in a new age of fitness marketing. Demonized in the crossfire, machines went down with the sinking ship.
The remedy for all of this was “functional” fitness.
If you were outside of the bodybuilding community, you were easily won over with the argument that you needed to train for life, not just aesthetics.
The marketing was easily built in.
Who doesn’t want to get leaner, increase mobility, and stay pain-free? Who doesn’t want to look, move, and perform like an athlete?
Sign us up.
THE SIDE EFFECT OF FUNCTIONAL TRAINING
In the progression between the comeback and the demonization, there’s one more stage: the period of overindulgence.
The Ole American Way of: if some is good, more is better.
Functional training transformed from demonizing machines, body part splits, and any exercise that didn’t directly translate to the sports field, to hating on muscle building altogether.
Getting really strong and squatting a couple wheels suddenly became ill-advised. You were better off standing on top of an exercise ball and desperately trying to complete a set of squats without breaking your neck.
Cause, ya know, those solid concrete sidewalks get pretty unstable sometimes.
Deadlifts gained the reputation of destroying your back. Tire flips became much more practical and functional, yet in our opinion, both look like a hip hinge.
Now, it’s time to look beyond the land of functional fitness toys, beyond the cloud of chalk covering the free weights, and beyond the sea of cardio machines deep into the abyss of the machine section.
Allow us to reintroduce you to your old pals. Make nice, wipe the dust off, and gear up.
BUT FIRST, THE BAD NEWS
We’re not trying to sugarcoat this: there are some negatives that go with using machines in your training.
The first step is awareness.
We’re going to talk about them, and then you can make the educated decision whether or not they fit into your program.
1. IF YOU HAVE MOBILITY ISSUES
Some machines aren’t ideal for certain individuals, especially those lacking in baseline mobility.
If you don’t have the range of motion to get into the position a machine will put you in passively, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Not only will you be adding strength on top of dysfunction, but you’ll not actually gain strength or hypertrophy in the muscles you’re targeting.
Instead, your body will find the path of least resistance.
For example, if you aren’t able to reach overhead, a machine shoulder press will not magically allow you to do so. Sure, it might feel and look a lot better than if you tried with dumbbells, but your body will compensate and you’ll most likely have to extend through your lumbar spine or position your body so that your upper pecs take over.
This is like betting on black every time you step up to the Roulette table.
Eventually you will lose.
First rule: If it hurts, stop doing it.
Second rule: Invest in your joint health. Spend the extra time it takes to focus on restoring adequate mobility and sound movement patterns. Once you have it, it’s a hell of a lot easier to maintain.
2. DON’T FORGET YOUR STABILIZERS
A huge part of why machines are an important weapon in your training arsenal is that they take stabilizers out of the equations. They allow your primary muscle movers to act accordingly without the risk of putting smaller, stabilizing muscles at risk of potential injury.
But this is also a flaw in machines. We want these stabilizers to do their job and become stronger as the neighbor muscles do.
Since most machines are seated and therefore, take the core and abdominal musculature out of the equation. You should also program exercises that require balance, coordination, and proprioception. There should be bilateral and unilateral movements in each workout. We recommend utilizing the positions of standing, kneeling, half-kneeling, and quadruped to compliment your seated work.
3. OVERUSE INJURIES ARE A THING
As we touched on above, the bar path of machines is already predetermined. Unlike dumbbells and cables that move within your range of motion, the handles on a machine are locked in.
While we’ll get into the benefits of this shortly, you must realize that overuse injuries can happen rather easily when placing the same exact demand on a muscle repeatedly.
With dumbbells and cables, the path is always dynamically changing. While one should strive for each repetition to be precise, there are small fluctuations that hit the muscle uniquely throughout the duration of a set.
Variation is the key to avoiding this.
When we dubbed this year as The Return of The Machine, we did not demonize barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, or any other piece of equipment. Instead, we’re simply adding the expansive list of machines to everything else you’re already using.
All in all, utilizing machines in your workout regimen is just like any other training tool. It’s exactly that…a tool.
Program it where it makes senses and is conducive to your goals.
AND NOW, THE GOOD NEWS
1. GREAT SAFETY RATING
Shot in the dark here, but we think we know you.
You love to train. You don’t go to the gym for the “minimum effective dose.”
You enjoy pushing your body to the limit. You love the feeling of your pecs swelling with blood. You crave that sensation of your triceps screaming bloody murder. You find solace in hobbling up and down the stairs post leg day.
You damn masochist, you.
As you chase that pump in your journey to strength and swole, you’ll need to dig in and push beyond your comfort zone, but no matter how strong you become or how perfect your recovery protocol is, fatigue will eventually set in.
You may delay its onset, but you will never escape it.
It’s a lesson most learn the hard way because fatigue affects your beloved muscles from contracting and producing force.
And that’s why you train all those compound exercises right? For all that “core engagement” and the better utilization of your stabilizers.
Depending on the specific joint working, when fatigue becomes too much and the integrity of those precious stabilizers become vulnerable, the stabilizers will lose the same grit and tenacity that your primary mover muscles do.
Because there are no reserves for the stabilizers to tap into, you’re setting yourself up for injury. Push too hard and run the risk of torn ligaments, strained tendons, and dislocated joints.
Exercise machines completely take stabilizers out of the equation and allow you to keep demanding more from your muscle. Relatively speaking, this is a good and bad thing. But for right now, we’re highlighting the benefits.
Opting for exercise machines over free weights deeper in your training sessions will allow your mover muscles to continue working without risking the health of your stabilizers and joint structures. In return, you will be able to increase time under tension and elicit the coveted hypertrophy response (muscles, brah).
This is where you assess your risk versus reward. If you want to make gains and push beyond your comfort levels while staying healthy, machines are an excellent choice to get the job done.
Training hard and training stupid are two separate ball fields, with a lot of space between the two.
2. PROPER EXECUTION
If you are using machines, you’re probably after hypertrophy demands: growing muscle and improving your body composition. With that said, your goal is to train muscles, NOT movement.
We’re locking in on intent.
To do so, we must train our brains to feel and squeeze the muscle and create the hardest contraction possible while maintaining the tension throughout the entire set.
That begins with your execution of each and every repetition. To reach your goals, your intention will be to re-educate your brain to work with your nervous system and muscles to create a connection between the three.
Once you can conquer this notion, then you will be ready to move on to strength and power work and still reap the benefits of muscle growth as you can activate those fibers more efficiently.
Machines allow us to establish that connection, keep tension on the targeted muscle group, and achieve our goals of increased muscle mass.
3. HOW TO IMPLEMENT THESE TRAINING TECHNIQUES
Since you began training, your routine has probably included prescribed sets and reps that look like this: 3×10. 4×8. 8×3.
Rep schemes like this stand the test of time. They’re effective at getting you strong and building muscle as long as there’s a progressive overload and demand for the body to adapt.
But eventually, they get boring AF.
That’s why heaven itself blessed us bros with more training techniques than Ben & Jerry’s has flavors.
Rest Pauses. Drop Sets. MYO Sets. Cluster Sets. Strip Sets. Running the Rack. Tight Drop Sets. Wide Drop Sets. Ascending and Descending Drop Sets. Grip Change Drop Sets. Mechanical Drop Sets.
Drop sets on drop sets on drop sets!
It gets us all riled just thinking about it.
No matter what method you choose, training techniques like these have one specific intended goal: muscle gain.
Drop sets allow you to push past the first barrier of failure and keep tapping into deeper and deeper muscle fibers to achieve hypertrophy.
Here are three of our favorite training methods to use specifically on machines:
- JAPANESE DROP SETS aka The King of Drop Sets. They’re actually 5 sets within one where you aim to complete 20 to 25 repetitions. Beginning with the heaviest load you can complete 4 to 6 repetitions, you will then drop the weight 5 to 15 percent and repeat. Then once more. Then once more. Then one final drop.Brutality at its finest.The reason why machines are perfect for this method is that you simply slide a plate off a Hammer Strength or Smith Machine or drop the pin on a pin loaded machine.Who wants to waste all that energy switching dumbbells anyways? Getting on and off the incline bench with a set of dumbbells five times in one set feels like too much of a leg day if you ask me. It’s a win-win situation.
- ONE & A QUARTER REPS: These suck but are amazing when it comes to increasing time under tension and improving strength at either a shortened or lengthened position. All you have to do is add a quarter repetition at the top or bottom of the movement.For example, let’s say you jump on the Hammer Strength Incline Machine. After you complete one repetition through the entire range of motion, return to the starting position and complete only a quarter of the entire range. That becomes one rep. Then repeat. If you are feeling really courageous, try adding a quarter rep at the bottom and the top. We dare ya to give it a shot.
- GIANT SETS: These can be used in numerous ways and should have an entire article dedicated to their greatness alone. For our case here, you’ll be utilizing giant sets for hypertrophy.Use 4 to 6 exercises that target the same muscle group with different variations and angles to overload them.You can use low repetitions and high intensity or vice versa, high repetitions with a lower intensity. Move from bigger, multi-compound movements to more isolated variations. We also recommend that you move from barbells and dumbbells to machines. Use machines near the end of the giant set is so that we can push beyond mechanical failure while keeping your body safe and getting the job done.Here’s one to try for your back:
A1. Wide Grip Pull-Ups 4 x6 – 8 (20 seconds rest)
A2. Smith Machine Barbell Rows 4 x6 – 8 (20 seconds rest)
A3. Neutral Grip Pulldowns 4 x6 – 8 (20 seconds rest)
A4. Snatch Grip Rack Pulls 4 x6 – 8 (20 seconds rest)
A5. Seated Cable Row 4 x6 – 8 (2 minutes rest)
4. INJURY REHABILITATION
To avoid going certifiably mad, a bro on the mend will usually either fall victim to treacherous cardio or they’ll get smart with programming (just like that one time Eric did single arm military presses while his other arm was in a sling).
When you’re coming back to the gym for the first time after an injury, it’s okay to feel unsure and that’s exactly where machines come in to save the day.
Whether it’s from the extra mental support of feeling the stability of the machine or if it’s from allowing you to push thru an extra rep or two to bring up a lagging body part.
When all your gains go to shit and you’re back at ground zero, you will need a few tricks up your sleeve to get you back mentally and physically. Trust us, we’ve been there.
Trust us, we’ve been there.
Machines will give you the edge as you prioritize safety by providing you with the ability to apply the needed grit to get you back from under the knife.
And once you’re back, continue using these exercise machines. When you combine them with the other strength training tools you’re currently using, you’re going to faster achieve your goals.