Pretty much every article written about resistance training will say that free weights are better than machines for developing overall strength, power, and athletic fitness. Yes, squats are better than leg presses, deadlifts are better than leg curls, and so on. But what are your options if you are training in a commercial gym that lacks conventional free weight equipment? Let’s take a look, focusing on lower body machines.
Before getting into the pros and cons of various lower body machines, consider that German sports scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher developed a six-level classification of exercises based on how effectively they stimulated the neuromuscular system. Progressing from the lowest level of stimulation to the highest, here are those exercises:
Level 1: Isolation exercise on variable resistance machine
Level 2: Complex exercise on variable resistance machine
Level 3: Isolation exercise with constant resistance machine
Level 4: Complex exercise with constant resistance machine
Level 5: Isolation exercise with free weights
Level 6: Complex exercise with free weights
If you’re an athlete seeking optimal athletic performance, the focus of your training should be on Level 5 and Level 6 exercises. This is not to say athletes should never do Level 1-4 exercises. For example, many strength coaches prescribe Level 1 or Level 3 leg curls for athletes to help prevent hamstring pulls. Or if an athlete injured their lower back, making free weight squats impossible, Level 2 or Level 4 leg presses might be a good alternative.
Consider too that Level 1 exercises can be a good introduction to weight training for those who have never trained or those who have taken an extended layoff. Here is an example of a lower body workout for a beginner using only Level 1 exercises:
A1. Leg Extension, Cam*, 2 x 12-15, 4010, rest 30 seconds
A2. Prone Leg Curl, Cam*, 2 x 8-10, 4010, rest 60 seconds
B1. Seated Adductor Machine, Cam*, 2 x 8-10, 4010, rest 30 seconds
B2. Seated Abductor Machine, Cam*, 2 x 8-10, 4010, rest 60 seconds
C. Horizontal Calf Machine,Cam*, 2 x 12-15, 2010, rest 60 seconds
*Variable resistance cam (such as Nautilus)
To change this to a Level 3 workout, you could use machines that use circular pulleys rather than variable-resistance cams. Also, consider that momentum can build up in machines. This momentum may cause the level arms to move on their own, thus decreasing the work of the muscles. For this reason, most machine exercises should be performed slowly. For example, you would not perform a leg curl with a 20X0 tempo (resulting in the concentric portion being performed explosively) as the hamstrings would not be under a significant level of tension at the top of the movement.
Now let’s step up to lower body workouts using Level 2 and Level 4 exercises. These workouts involve compound movements that use more muscle groups, and thus are more effective for burning calories and affecting changes in metabolic conditioning. Using the above workout example, rather than supersetting leg extensions with leg curls, you could superset horizontal leg presses with a glute/hamstring kickback machine.
Leg exercises can be broken down into several categories, such as quad dominant (squat or leg extension) and hip dominant (deadlift or good morning). Another way is by joint movement such as extension (leg extension) or flexion (leg curl).
Most commercial gyms, especially those that cater to the affluent population, prefer machines with selectorized weight stacks rather than the plate-loaded variations. It’s not so much for saving space (as many plate-loaded machines have pegs to hold plates), but the risk of injury is higher as a trainee could drop a weight on their feet or a plate could be left on the floor, creating a tripping hazard. With that background, let’s look at a few of the popular resistance-training machines for the lower body:
Smith Machines. Rather than power racks and barbells, many higher-end gyms prefer to equip their gyms with Smith machines. Performing deadlifts on a Smith machine is popular because you can start the exercise from your strongest position, rather than having to start from the floor where most people are weaker.
The important safety rule to remember when using Smith machines is to adjust the safety catches set to the appropriate height – often, gym members can be seen performing squats with the safety catches all the way down. Many individuals have become permanently disabled by performing squats and bench presses using Smith machines because the safety catches were not used properly.
Using the program design format of quad dominant and hip dominant exercises, here are some of your options for exercises using a Smith machine:
Quad Dominant: Leg extension, lunge, step-ups, squats
Hip Dominant: Deadlift (sumo, straight-leg, Romanian), good mornings
With a Smith machine added to your exercise toolbox, you can enjoy a considerable amount of variety in your training. Here is an example of an intermediate-level, lower body muscle-building workout using a combination of the Smith machine and machines designed to isolation muscles:
A. Split Squat, Smith Machine, 4 x 8-10 (each leg), 4010, rest 60 seconds
B. Romanian Deadlift, Smith Machine, 4 x 6-8, 4010, rest 90 seconds
C1. Leg Extension, 3 x 12-15, 4010, rest 30 seconds
C2. Prone Leg Curl, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 60 seconds
D. Standing Calf Raise, 2 x 12-15, 2010, rest 60 seconds
E. Seated Calf Machine, 2 x 20-25, 2010, rest 30 seconds
Leg Press. In the early days of weight training, strongmen would perform leg presses by lying on the back and balancing a barbell on their bare feet. Not a good idea. Among the first leg press machines were horizontal units that were attached to multi-station “jungle gyms.” Also popular, especially among football players, were incline leg press machines that had a sled on rails that you would attach weights too.
Although most leg press machines have you starting with your legs bent, the incline variations have you starting with the legs straight. This design is better as the user is less likely to jerk the weight at the start, causing hyperextension of the lumbar spine.
Hack Squat. The advantage of a hack squat is that it usually offers a greater range of motion than a leg press. As with the leg press, the exercise places less stress on the lower back muscles. One technique variation is to lift your heels off the footpad as you squat to more strongly activate the vastus medialis. The downside is that these machines create higher shearing forces on the knee that may decrease knee stability.
Leg Curl. The first leg curls were performed from a standing position and resistance was applied with an iron boot. What followed were machines that enabled the user to flex their legs from a prone position, applying pressure to an ankle pad attached to a pulley system. Because these machines were often uncomfortable as they caused hyperextension of the lower back, units were soon designed with a V-shape bench and also a leg curl variations that could be performed from a seated, kneeling and standing position.
Adductor/Abductor. Adduction means to move towards the body (think “add”) and abduction means to move away from the body. Thus, an adductor leg machine would have you pulling your legs together and an adductor leg machine would have you moving your legs apart. Both standing and seated units are available. These machines tend to be more popular among women, but also are commonly used in rehabilitation.
Calf. The two basic types of calf machines are standing and seated. The standing machines focus on working the gastrocnemius (upper) calf muscles and the seated machines focus on working the soleus (lower) calf muscle. A significant amount of weight can be used on standing calf machines, so it’s important to focus on proper torso alignment when performing this exercise.
Yes, machines are overall better than free weights, but there is no denying that machines are here to stay. Use these guidelines to help you get the most out of a commercial gym to help you fulfill your goals.