One of the keys to running a successful commercial gym is making certain no one gets hurt, and the bigger the gym franchise, the bigger the target for potential lawsuits. According to the latest research on the subject, most injuries that occur in resistance training involve free weights, not machines. For this reason, many large commercial gyms have gotten away from heavy duty free weight equipment to focus more on machines they believe carry less of a risk of injury. Let’s look at few of these machines, focusing on those that work the muscles of the upper body.
Before getting into what these machines do, consider that a 2015 government study found that only about 14 percent of emergency room visits were attributed to overexertion, muscle pulls, or loss of balance. The most common causes of injury were accidents in which people dropped weights on themselves. Obviously, such injuries are less likely to happen with machines as there is usually some type of safety mechanism in place to prevent weights from falling on them.
But to be fair, research on weightlifting and powerlifting shows that the risk of injury in these sports is relatively low, often because they are performed under supervision. According to sports/liability consultant Dr. Marc Rabinoff, about 95 of the weight training cases he was hired to consult on involved machines, not free weights. “Most people know that if you drop free weights you’re going to get hurt, so we tend to be really cautious about using them. With machines, most people think that nothing could happen to them, so they become less safety conscious and tend to use more weight than they should.”
With that background, what are the best machines for the upper body? You could certainly break down these exercises by dividing them into unilateral (one limb at a time) and bilateral (two limbs at a time) designs, or how the resistance is applied (leverage or selectorized weight stacks). A better way is to break down upper body exercises is by their function, a system that should be credited to strength coach Ian King.
With this system, resistance training machines can be broken down into the following categories: horizontal pulling (seated row), vertical pulling (lat pulldown), horizontal pushing (bench press), and vertical pushing (shoulder press). For abdominal machines, you can divide the machines into those that focus on the upper abs (abdominals contract while the legs are anchored), lower abs (abdominals contract while upper body is anchored), and rotational.
Using such a movement classification system enables you to design workouts that are balanced. If you are training three times per week, you might just select one exercise for each category, as follows:
Shoulder Press Machine (Vertical Pressing)
Chin-up Machine (Vertical Pulling)
Seated Bench Press (Horizontal Pressing)
Seated Cable Row (Horizontal Pulling)
Seated Ab Crunch (Upper Ab)
Using supersets to reduce workout time, here is how such a workout could be designed for a beginner:
A1. Shoulder Press Machine, 2 x 10-12, 4010, rest 30 seconds
A2. Chin-up Machine, 2 x 10-12, 4010, rest 60 seconds
B1. Seated Bench Press, 2 x 10-12, 4010, rest 30 seconds
B2. Seated Cable Row, 2 x 10-12, 3110, rest 60 seconds
C. Seated Ab Crunch, 2 x 12-15, 2010, rest 60 seconds
For a more advanced trainee, simply add another exercise to each movement pattern. If your gym is not busy, here is an advanced version of the above workout using giant sets, with the A2, A4, B2, and B4 exercises working the same movement pattern as the previous exercise (a method known as post exhaustion):
A1. Shoulder Press Machine, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 10 seconds
A2. Lateral Raise Machine, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 30 seconds
A3. Chin-up Machine, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 10 seconds
A4. Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown, Behind Neck, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 120 seconds
B1. Seated Bench Press, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 10 seconds
B2. Pec Dec, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 30 seconds
B3. Seated Cable Row, 3 x 8-10, 3110, rest 10 seconds
B4. Reverse Fly, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 120 seconds
C1. Ab Crunch, 2 x 10-12, 2010, rest 15 seconds
C2. Torso Twist Machine, 2 x 6-8, 2010, rest 30 seconds
From this starting point, here are some guidelines to consider. First, most machines start from the weakest part of the exercise, so you have to be careful not to jerk the weight to get it started. For example, with a pec dec, your arms are in a position of external rotation in a full stretch. If you jerk the weight to get the pads moving, you can easily injure the shoulder joint.
Next, consider that machines which isolate one muscle group are often uncomfortable unless they are adjustable. For example, bicep curl machines should have adjustments to accommodate different arm lengths and have handles that rotate. If you find that the arm machines at your gym are uncomfortable, it would be better to perform the same exercises with a multi-purpose machine that uses cables and has handles that rotate.
If you don’t know how to use a machine, rather than experimenting, ask a gym staff member to show you. For example, if a chin/dip machine has you perform the exercise with your legs straight (rather than while kneeling on a pad), you can injury yourself if your foot slips while you are getting on or off the unit as the lever arm will slam back to the start position. Also, with these machines you should avoid trying to change from a chin-up to a dip position while you are suspended – let the lever arm return to the start position, change your grip, and then perform the second exercise.
Regardless of how carefully an exercise is performed, consider that some machines simply may be uncomfortable, especially for those with orthopedic conditions. For example, an individual with a round shoulders/forward head posture may find seated behind-the-neck pulldowns hard on the shoulders.
Because variety is essential for progress in resistance training, it’s a good idea to change the type of exercises you perform every few weeks. Weight training machines are here to stay, but used these guidelines to get the most out of your training and to stay safe.