Building muscle with machines is difficult to do when the bread and butter of most physiques is built around compound movements with free weights.
There are countless ways to build muscle, you could read and watch 1000’s of tips, tricks and tutorials on methods that you should be including in your routine and to be honest most theories will work if the correct effort and application is used. One tool that is commonly used but also widely debated when it comes to building muscle is the use of fixed machines.
A fixed machine is one that targets a specific muscle and will only move in one specific plane of motion. A leg press for example will go up and down in a straight line, you can change your foot position to target different muscle of the leg but the machine will still move in the same direction. It’s not that a fixed machine will move in a straight line necessarily as seen by the arcing motion of a chest fly but rather the movement pattern Is fixed.
This is different from free weight variations (dumbbells and barbells) where there is no fixed movement pattern. Fixed machines get a bad name among ‘functional training gurus’ who would have you doing a single leg squat on a bosu ball to fully activate the core…. If however you workout in a gym with minimal equipment you can still easily build muscle using machines.
Better still even if you train in a large facility or bodybuilding gym then you have access to machines that will build muscle that you simply cannot target with a free weight only regime.
This article will take you through the strategies and machines that you can use to build muscle even with the most limited range of machines.
The Misconceptions About Building Muscle Using Machines
My first ever gym membership was at a local community centre where one there was about 50 pieces of gym equipment max, this included free weights, cardio machines and fixed weight machines. It was limited in equipment, it didn’t have a barbell and dumbbells only went up to 30kg in weight. It was as basic a setup as you could get but still a big step up on my previous setup which was a beginners York dumbbell and barbell set in my parents garage.
Even with this limited equipment there were some big and strong guys in that gym and I was able to add around 7kg of weight in my first year there so luckily I learnt first hand that you can build muscle just by following progressive overload and eating in a calorie surplus.
It’s only really when you read into weight training and muscle building theories that you realise fixed weight machines for the large part have a bad reputation in the fitness industry. I light-heartedly mentioned the functional training gurus however the fact is with information overload in the current age people actually view weight training machines as a negative thing.
There’s been a timeless debate about the most efficient way to build strength, power and muscle between free weights (dumbbells and barbells), machines and even body weight. This article is specifically about building muscle and for that reason I won’t be making claims about which is the best method and joining in on this debate but will instead be looking specifically at the benefits of using machines to build muscle.
The most common misconception about using machines is that you don’t use stabilizing muscles due to the machines traveling in a fixed plane of motion, you are therefore not required to balance any weights against gravity.
This tends to be the driving argument for why free weights are superior to machines when it comes to building muscle and it’s worth noting that utilising all equipment is what will see optimal progress in your physique development but for the purpose of this article, the fact that machines don’t engage your stabilizing muscles is irrelevant!
Muscle hypertrophy is determined by the stimulus provided by mechanical loading (weightlifting) and the metabolic stress (volume in terms of sets, reps and duration) caused by lifting weights. The pectoral muscle doesn’t differentiate between a barbell bench press and a seated chest press even though the results can be different depending on your routine.
Due to stabilizing muscles not being utilised on most machines these are often referred to as isolation exercises which is another misconception. An isolation exercise targets a single muscle group and whilst the purpose of most machines (and exercises) is to target a specific muscle group it doesn’t mean that other muscle groups will not be present in the movement. A seated row will still activate the biceps regardless of how they have been designed to target the back.
To really get the most out of fixed machines you need to change your mentality towards them and see them as a muscle building tool and not just something for beginners learning the movements or as isolation only exercises.
Benefits of Using Machines
I’m sure it comes across that I’m all for using fixed machines to build muscle, gymnasts build muscle using nothing more than body weight exercises (not intended for building muscle) and time under tension to induce muscle hypertrophy so failing to see the benefits of a machine that is designed purely to target a muscle group would be a narrow minded.
Technology and our understanding of anatomy and physiology means that machines are more suited to targeting and developing muscle groups than ever before. The levers and range of motion of the machines are less rigid and better designed to suit all limb lengths and body shapes which brings us on to the benefits of including machines in your routine.
The fixed axis of most machines means that it is more difficult to use poor and incorrect form than it is to perform the movement with good form. A big issue that many beginners and even those experienced in training have is falling into back habits regarding exercise form.
There’s the obvious reason in poor form resulting in potential injury but another issue with poor form is that training becomes sub-optimal. To illustrate, if you train a cable tricep press down with your elbow flared out to the side rather than being tucked in to your side then the line of force will not be around the elbow joint or tricep muscle and another joint will need to be active (in this example it would be the shoulder joint).
Proper form is not just about using what someone deems to be good form but rather the most effective way to isolate the working muscle and maximise tension. Machines moving in a fixed pattern will make it very difficult for you to use poor form and with proper alignment you will be able to fully contract and isolate the working muscle.
Creating Mechanical Tension
Creating mechanical tension is arguably one of the single most important factors when it comes to building muscle and is a key component of muscle hypertrophy. Mechanical tension is basically a technical and fancy term for placing a muscle under stress to create a stimulus. Whenever a muscle has to act against an external force then this creates mechanical tension so any form of weightlifting falls under this bracket.
When you take it in its simplest form, your body doesn’t know what is causing mechanical tension, you could be picking up a barbell or a washing machine but all the muscle group registers is the amount of weight that needs to be lifted and the relative amount of force that needs to be applied to lift it.
My basic point is that a fixed weight machines sole design is focused around placing a muscle under load (mechanical tension). It doesn’t really matter that you are not using additional stabilising muscles because the target muscle will be placed under as much mechanical tension as you could handle. If you only had access to a shoulder press rack but used it every day as an extreme example and maxed out the weight stack within a year then chances are you will have significant shoulder development to show for it.
Strict Progressive Overload
Progressive overload and eating in a calorie surplus are two of the single biggest factors involved when it comes to building muscle. I discuss in great length the benefits of using progressive overload here but to reap the benefits of progressive overload you need to truly progress by using the exact same form every time you perform the movement.
It’s very easy to let your ego take over when it comes to adding more weight to the bar and rush ahead sacrificing form and control over the weight. Whilst you might be able to go up weights quickly your muscles can only adapt at a certain speed and it’s likely that too significant of a jump in weight will result in your ligaments and tendons taking on more of the strain which you don’t want.
There’s also the issue of cheating the weight up to hit a certain weight. To be honest there is a time when you can use a ‘controlled cheat’ to test a new weight but for 95% of your training you should be making incremental jumps in weight and keeping form as consistent as possible.
The main advantage of a fixed weight machine when it comes to progressive overload is that it’s very hard to cheat the weight stack, especially if you have a well designed machine which quite a lot are these days. A fixed weight machine will not only ensure that your form is consistent each set and each workout but when you progress the weight it will be as a result of strength progress within the target muscle and not the result of a cheated rep.
Heavy compound movements like a deadlift and squat will offer the most potential when it comes to progressive overload but machines will still allow for a substantial amount progressive potential.
Properly Isolating and Contracting the Target Muscle
Machines are often referred to as being strictly for isolation exercises, whilst I don’t believe this to be true there’s no denying that machines are actually excellent tools to use for isolation exercises.
A seated chest fly machine is designed in such a way that it’s more difficult to use other muscle groups to complete the movement than it is for the pectoral muscles. To properly isolate a muscle group you want to remove as many secondary and stabilising muscle groups as possible from the movement and this is what the majority of machines now do.
It can be difficult to target and get a feel for the working muscle if you’re anything but experienced when it comes to lifting weights. They key to every exercise should be to feel the target muscle contracting for the duration of the movement, if at any point you can’t feel the target muscle working then it’s likely something else is helping to do the movement.
This is a recurring theme when it comes to weight training and it’s surprising how a lapse in concentration during a set could see you go from working one muscle group to having a completely different one take control. A pullover movement for example can target the lats but also be used to target the chest depending on positioning and it’s therefore a priority that you know what muscle group you want to target and feel the necessary contraction.
The overriding point of this is that a machine will help you feel the target muscle by restricting the movement pattern. With the machine assisting the motion of the exercise you should easily be able to feel the intended muscle working even as a complete beginner.
Use Advanced Techniques Such as Drop Sets and Forced Negatives
Now we are getting into the 1% territory, frequent weightlifting following progressive overload, eating in a calorie surplus and getting sufficient rest and recovery will result in 99% of your muscle building progress. Marginal gains will then come from additional firms such as supplementation and advanced training techniques.
Advanced training techniques will be most relevant when it comes to using machines. For this you can use drop sets, rest pause sets and extended eccentrics (without a training partner). These are best utilised on machines, with a few exceptions, not only because it’ll be safer but for the ease of execution.
Take a drop set for example, with a drop set you will perform a normal set of repetitions with your top weight and let’s say you get 8 repetitions. Once you finish the set you will immediately drop the weight 15% – 30% and perform as many reps as you can. You will then drop another 20% – 40% and finish with as many reps as possible.
The reason this is an advanced technique is because you are targeting and exhausting a range of muscle fibres (both fast twitch and slow twitch) which can be extremely demanding on the body. You should therefore only do this for one exercise per session and only where logical.
A machine will make it a seamless process to drop the weight and immediately start the next set, a deadlift on the other hand would take significant time and effort to remove the plates and then get re-positioned. A 30 second delay is enough for muscle fibres to recover and a drop set then becomes less effective. There’s also the fact that it’s a tiring technique and any breakdown in form will risk injury on a compound movement.
A machine not only helps to alleviate any breakdown in form but also offered additional benefits for these advanced techniques. For extended eccentrics you could do a leg curl and perform the concentric (curling portion) with both legs and then remove one leg to overload the eccentric portion, this is possible for any machine that uses both limbs.
9 Best Muscle Building Machines
Any weightlifting machine that you use will serve a purpose and have some benefit, as with most things in life there are however certain machines that are more beneficial than others.
The list below are the 9 best machines that you could use when looking to build muscle using only machines, they will of course be excellent additions to any training plan but for the purpose of improving your physique these should be your go to machines.
Leg Curl (lying or seated)
Either version of the leg curl machine is excellent for targeting the hamstrings though I prefer the seated version for getting locked into position and creating maximum mechanical loading.
With the seated version you lock pad on top of your quads and this creates a very stable locked in position, on the lying hamstring curl it’s very easy for your hips to come off the bench and see your form breakdown as a result but with the pad keeping you locked in to position on the seated variant it’s much easier to keep for strict.
With strict form on every rep you have the opportunity to progress up the weight stack with identical form from one training session to the next meaning any hypertrophy will be purely focused on the hamstrings. The key with this exercise is to really press your quads into the pad creating as much tension as possible throughout the movement.
This machine is a king for lower body development because you can vary foot position to target all the major muscle groups of the legs. A high foot placement will target the hamstrings, a high and wide foot placement will target hamstring and glutes and a low foot placement will target the quads (vary the width of this to target different areas of the quads).
This not only offers the opportunity to target and area of lower body successfully but you can also create maximum tension through a stable body position. For leg press machine: set at an incline you are essentially forced into taking up a stable, locked in position (you will notice many of my recommendations revolve around have a locked in body position to minimise cheating and a loss of tension within the working muscle).
Grasping the handles tightly and keeping your posture compact will allow you to keep form strict on this movement. This is also a machine that offers a large progressive opportunity in terms of load. Due to the preferential body position of the leg press you can really load up the weight stack and place the muscles under a great deal of tension.
To be specific this needs to be a seated row that offers a chest supported pad, a cable low row will not offer the same benefits (though obviously has benefits in its own right).
With the chest support you have something to press against creating additional tension during the movement and allowing for a heavier load to be used, both of which are ideal requirements for building muscle. If you tried performing the same seated row without a chest support you’d have to use significantly less weight as you struggle against stabilising your body with heavier weights.
You can really work up the weight stack with this machine whilst maintaining good form and being friendly on the lower back. Most heavy rowing variants like a barbell row and dumbbell row all put additional strain on your lower back as you look to work against gravity and keep your upper body stable, the seated variant almost eliminates this and allows you to focus solely on the upper back.
Preacher Curl Machine
If you had to pick one bicep exercise and couldn’t do anymore then most would pick a basic barbell curl due to preference or seeing it as the go to mass builder for the biceps. The preacher curl however should be your key exercise when it comes to bicep development for a number of reasons.
The preacher bench for a starter locks your joints into a position that makes it incredibly difficult to cheat the weight up and therefore all of the tension is on the bicep. With a standard curl it’s very easy to use a bit of momentum and arching when you hit a sticking point in the movement and whilst finishing the rep you essentially take all tension off of the biceps. A seated preacher makes it virtually impossible to do this so forces you to select a modest weight that you can actually handle.
Another benefit of the seated preacher curl is that it puts extra emphasis on the short head of the bicep which is responsible for a bicep peak and often gets under worked. The reason for this is because your bicep never gets fully shortened and contracted as your arm goes up and down in a standard curl. To illustrate curl your arm as normal and try to squeeze the bicep as much as possible, now raise your arms above your head so that your bicep touches your ear and curl your arm (towards your shoulder blades). You should feel a significantly tighter contraction and the reason for this is that it places the bicep in a fully shortened position.
A preacher curl has a similar but less profound contraction as your upper arms are raised but not fully. It is a balancing act as you are not in a stable position when arms are fully raised so can’t use as much weight which is why I prefer the preacher curl as a happy medium that will allow for more progression.
Seated Lateral Raise
Dumbbell side lateral raises alongside a barbell curl are the most cheated exercise that people perform in the gym. It’s not necessarily intentional but it’s so easy to use momentum, swinging or body arching to complete a rep that it requires more focus to perform a good rep than most other exercises (excluding Olympic lifts). It’s also easier to use heavier weights than you can handle which will lessen the benefits of doing the exercise in the first place.
A seated lateral raise machine locks you into position and pretty much eliminates any chance of cheating a rep which is ideal for building muscle. A lateral raise targets the medial deltiod which is the side section of the shoulder muscle, it’s not a large muscle group however once developed makes a significant transformation for your physique as it creates a v taper illusion for the upper body.
The deltoid recovers quickly from exercise and therefore requires a higher rep range and more advanced techniques to fatigue the muscle fibres. A seated lateral raise machine is ideal for performing drop sets and extending sets in order to stimulate muscle hypertrophy and is also one of the most joint friendly movements when it come to the shoulder joint.
Unilateral Chest Press
To be honest as far as chest development goes, free weight movements in the form of barbells or dumbbells will reap better results due to the way the muscle fibres run within the muscle. It’s difficult for most machines to create the necessary hand positioning that reflects the direction of the muscle fibres so you can’t fully target the muscle group like a leg press would for legs for example.
If however you are limited on equipment and using only machines then a chest press with unilateral handles (each handle moves separately from the other) would be the best option. This is because a unilateral machine is often designed with the handles at a more preferential angle to get a stretch for the pecs, generic chest press machines tend to have a limited range of motion so only works the top range of the movement.
As with all machine based exercises to key is to get into a locked in position with your form and then progress the weight from session to session. Free weights do offer the greatest potential for loading the chest so a chest press machine is really best used as a secondary exercise after a free weight compound one.
A hammer strength pulldown machine that is plate loaded is the best from an exercise mechanics view point as you can really overload the stretched end range of motion for the lats. A standard cable lat pulldown will however still provide an excellent opportunity to train the lats.
The benefit of the lat pulldown is that you can vary the handles and grip position to target different parts or the lats and upper back musculature. This variety means that the options for progressive overload is endless, you should theoretically be able to advance with one attachment/grip position and once this plateaus you can change the attachment and start to progress for slightly different muscles of your back.
Seated Calf Raise
You’re very limited in exercises to train the calfs, however to work them fully you need to target both the gastrocnemius and soleus. To do this you need to train with both the leg straight (this will target the gastrocnemius) and also with the knee bent (this is needed to target the soleus). A straight leg exercise is easy to do using a leg press or smith machine however to train calfs with the knee bent you’d need to use a specially made seated calf raise machine.
The reason this is one of the absolute best machines that you can use is because it’s specialised for the muscle group. For most machines and muscle groups their is usually an adequate alternative available, for a seated calf raise however there is no alternative. Sure you could put some plates or dumbbells on your thighs as a form of mechanical loading however this is going to become very difficult to progress with once you get strong enough.
A seated calf raise is therefore one of the only machines that you can use that offers little to no alternative, it’s therefore an essential piece of kit!
There are mixed reviews about this piece of machinery to put it lightly but in my opinion there is no denying that you can benefit from using this machine if your sole purpose for training is to build muscle.
You could use this machine to target almost every muscle group in the body and because the movement of the bar path is fixed it is more difficult to cheat on any exercise and use poor form as the stabilising and balancing portion of the exercise has been removed. Take a row in the smith machine for example, if you position your feet in the same place every time then the fixed movement of the bar path will always be the same. Any strength progress you make on this exercise will be a direct result of consistent form which is more likely to then result in the desired muscle hypertrophy.
Some arguments say that you should never squat in a smith machine and comments like these have resulted in the smith machine having a bad reputation in some communities, the obvious answer to this however is to not do the movements that have poor mechanics in the smith machine and do the ones that are beneficial like previously mentioned row.
Machines aren’t supposed to be an all purpose one size fits all approach to training but if you use them to progressively get stronger whilst maintaining good form then you will be building muscle on a monthly basis.
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