Walk into any big-box gym, and you’ll likely see the same scenario: a sea of people talking on treadmills; others walking around alongside free-standing gym machines, unsure what to do. While yes, those clunky machines are there for a reason, the reality is they can be more detrimental than good.
“Gym machines can be good for muscle activation and getting accustomed to feeling your body do work,” says Denzel Allen, kettlebell specialist and instructor at SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. “But they can also be risky. A machine setup can give people a false impression that they’re stronger than they actually are.”
So what’s a concerned gym-goer to do? It’s all about programming. “The right programming can make all the difference and may only involve a few simple swaps from your current routine,” says Kitsa Ouzounidis, a personal trainer at Equinox in New York. “Plus, smarter planning can help you stay consistent and on track reaching your personal goals.”
It’s time to smarten up. Ditch the machines with these four smart swaps that will help you get more out of your next workout.
1. Crunch Machine
Why: “The crunch machine and most other ab machines work the superficial layer of your abdominal muscles,” Allen says. “This means that they overdevelop the part of your abs that you can visually see, but they do not develop your inner core, which is responsible for protecting your spine, improving your posture, and connecting your upper and lower extremities to ensure your body works as a unit.”
What to Do Instead: Bear Crawl
“A bear crawl works your entire core, not just that superficial layer. Think of a baby: Babies create the strength to be able to walk by crawling and building their upper-body and lower-body strength, as well as their core strength, until they are able to stand upright. As adults we lose the ability to crawl, but gaining that strength back can go a long way toward resetting the body and making us feel young again,” Allen says.
How to do it: Start on all fours, wrists under shoulders, knees under hips. Lift knees off the floor an inch and raise hips slightly, bracing your core as you do so. That’s the “bear” position. Keeping shoulders and hips at the same height, step forward with right foot while reaching forward with left hand. Switch and step forward with left foot while reaching forward with right hand. Continue to repeat while moving forward, building speed as you go for 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Seated Leg Extension Machine
Why: “The seated leg extension does a great job of developing the quadriceps, but that’s about it,” Allen says. “Since it doesn’t work the hip or the opposing muscle group [the hamstrings], using the machine could also lead to knee problems because the hamstrings help create stability at the knee joint.”
What to Do Instead: Split Squat
“Split squats work your quadriceps in a much more balanced way, recruiting the hamstrings and glutes to keep the knees and hips healthy,” Allen says.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width distance apart, hands on hips. To make it harder, hold a heavy dumbbell at shoulder height with left hand. Take a large step forward with right foot, making sure to keep your torso upright and core engaged. Lower your body down into a lunge position until right thigh is parallel to ground. Press through heel press to return to starting position. Continue for 10 to 12 reps then repeat on other leg.
3. Seated Hamstring Curl Machine
Why: “The seated hamstring curl machine is much the same as the leg extension. They really isolate one particular muscle as opposed to the entire hamstring group of muscles,” Allen says.
What to Do Instead: Deadlift
“Deadlifts, on the other hand, are one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises. They are full body, meaning they work both your upper and lower body together. Plus, they teach you the most important trick: how to pick things up off the ground without injuring your back by utilizing the hip hinge,” Allen says.
How to do it: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead or slightly outward, holding dumbbells in each hand. With knees slightly bent, hinge forward from hips. Exhale as you lift to straighten legs—drive through the heels, not the toes—and bring the weights up past knees. Finish by thrusting the hips into alignment with feet and squeezing glutes. You should feel this in your butt and along the backs of legs. If you feel it in your lower back, you’re doing it wrong! Continue for 10 to 12 reps.
4. Chest Fly Machine
Why: “The chest fly machine takes away the body’s need to stabilize the weight, which can create some dysfunction of the shoulder and scapula. Also, having overdeveloped pecs and weak scapular control usually leads to bad posture,” Allen says.
What to Do Instead: Floor Chest Press With Weights
“Utilizing a chest press from the floor using dumbbells will help train the rotator cuff and scapular control, as well as work your pecs and core. Plus, working on the floor will help ensure you are working in the range of motion that you actually have [the floor prevents you from lowering further], which can save your shoulders in the long run,” Allen says.
How to do it: Lie faceup with knees bent and feet on the ground, holding dumbbells at shoulder height with palms facing knees. Bring elbows out in line with shoulders to create a 90-degree angle. Press the weights up without clanking them together, focusing on engaging the muscles in your chest. Lower weights back to starting position and repeat for 10 to 12 reps.