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Gym machines generally get a bad rap — but don't underestimate the effectiveness of a few OG options. Find the best leg machines, arm exercise machines, and even back workout machines below.

By Isadora Baum and Liz Neporent
Updated November 09, 2020
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When choosing how to best spend your minutes during a workout, experts generally give gym machines a hard pass in favor of bodyweight exercises or free weights. And it's not really shocking: Most of what we've learned about gym machines is that they suck.

"Exercise machines are, for the most part, used to work only one body part or muscle group at a time. And from everything we've learned about fitness, we know that that isn't the best use of your time," explains trainer David Carson, C.S.C.S., a Nike trainer and coach on the SweatWorking workout app. "In this fitness climate — where we're taught we need to do the most work or use the most body parts in the least amount of time — gym machines don't necessarily fit into the equation."

Since leg machines, arm machines, and back workout machines at the gym are inherently stable and have one (or a few, at most) fixed motions, you're also not using supporting muscles to keep your body and the weight stable, adds trainer Laura Arndt, C.S.C.S., CEO of Matriarc, a pre- and postnatal fitness app. For example, doing a standing biceps curl will force you to engage your legs and core, whereas leaning over a biceps curl machine will keep most of the work in your upper body. (Related: How to Build the Perfect Circuit Training Workout)

And, while gym machines may seem foolproof, you can still injure yourself if you use them incorrectly. "Gym machines require attention to detail when it comes to your chair settings and weight amounts," says Arndt. "Using a gym machine in a repetitive motion on an inappropriate setting or with the wrong weight can cause injuries and damage your joints."

What's more, when using these leg machines and arm exercise machines at the gym, you're spending a lot of time seated. If you perform a seated exercise and then spend your rest interval chillin' on your phone, your workout will end up being pretty inactive. And isn't that the opposite of what you want to be doing during a workout?

But before you're convinced to write off every workout exercise machine at the gym, consider these seven leg, arm, and back workout machines that deserve some a place in your workout routine.

1. Lat Pull-Down

A strong back will help you stand taller and reduce your injury risk.

"You'll find a lat pull-down machine in every gym in America," says Carson. "This gym back workout machine (indicated by its name) works the latissimus dorsi muscles (or lats) which are located on your back and wrap around the posterior of your ribcage," he says.

"What I love about the lat pull-down is how it simulates the pull-up, which is one of the best upper-body strength exercises you can do," he says. However, pull-ups are freaking hard-so it's unlikely that you can just whip one out without any training. Build up lat strength with one of the most effective arm machines at the gym, and you'll be nailing the perfect pull-up before you know it. "Everyone can stand to increase their pulling strength," says Carson.

Try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps using this back workout machine.

2. Pull-Up/Dip Machine

Reminder: Pull-ups are tough, sure, but so are bodyweight dips. They're both killers for your upper body and back muscles and are much easier said than done. This combo exercise machine allows you to work on both of them while reducing the percentage of your body weight that you're actually lifting, says Arndt. "This exercise machine helps maintain good form as you build strength in your entire upper body, especially if you're a beginner or want to work on high-rep, low-weight sets," she says.

On an upper-body day, try using this machine for modified pull-ups and triceps dips. "I recommend using 50 to 70 percent of your body weight for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps," she says. (Better yet, make it a superset by alternating between the two moves.)

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Photo: Microgen / Shutterstock

3. Seated Row Machine

"Like the lat pull-down, the seated row machine works the lats, this time focusing more on the mid-back since you're pulling the weight toward you horizontally," says Carson. This back workout machine also works the posterior side of your shoulders, as well as the biceps, and rhomboids (another back muscle). "This is a great move if you sit at a desk all day because that means you're likely losing strength in your postural muscles, which can cause pain and discomfort when weakened," he explains.

Try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

4. Chest Press

This arm machine is an incredibly effective way to work several muscles at once.

"The chest press machine is a great way to isolate your anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders) and pectorals (chest muscles) without putting too much strain on your wrists and shoulders as push-ups do," says Arndt. What's more, "if you have carpal tunnel or hand/wrist issues, a chest press machine is a great alternative to a bench press or push-up but works very similar muscle groups," she adds.

On an upper-body or chest/triceps lifting day, try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with a medium- to heavy-weight stack. (FYI, here are the top 6 exercise picks to perk up your pecs.)

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Photo: Jasminko Ibrakovic

5. Seated Leg Press

For a leg machine at the gym, head toward the leg press machine. Thanks to its back support, it offers a modified squat position, working your glutes, hamstrings, and quads without putting too much additional strain on your lower back and knees, says Arndt. "You can modify your chair setting to determine how 'deep' of a press/squat you want to do, and modify your weight as needed," she says.

"Because this exercise works big muscle groups—your glutes, hamstrings, and quads—it should be one of the first lower-body exercises you complete at the gym," she says.

On a lower-body day, try 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps at a light- to medium-weight stack. Start light with the weight you choose on this gym machine, and you can always go heavier if needed. (Hint: The last one or two reps should feel really hard—see below for more on how to pick the perfect LB level on any gym machine.)

6. Hamstring Curl

"Hamstrings prove to be one of the most difficult muscles to isolate and work safely and effectively," says Carson. Yet, "the hamstring curl machine allows you to do both, which is invaluable for anyone who is new to resistance training or looking to increase strength and size of the hamstring," he says.

Because many women are naturally quad-dominant (meaning your quads are stronger than your hamstrings) it pays to incorporate moves that force your hamstrings to do all the work without letting your quads take over. (This is just one of several common muscular imbalances.) Incorporate hamstring curls using this leg machine into your workout to make sure the backs of your legs are feeling the love too.

Try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

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Photo: psisa / GettyImages

7. Cable Machine

If you had to choose just one machine at the gym, use this one. That's because the cable tower — which features several weight stacks, adjustable cables, and a whole bunch of attachments — offers dozens of exercises to target all of your major muscles. With a mere flick of a clip, you can easily go from doing curls to kickbacks to rows on the same exercise machine. This multipurpose station has some serious perks that even free weights or bodyweight moves can't offer.

"Cable machines allow you to work in all angles, most of which can't be duplicated through dumbbells," he says. Because of gravity, you're always working against a downward pull with dumbbells or free weights. With a cable machine, you have the option to work against a horizontal or diagonal resistance.

And that's not all: Cable machines also offer a constant line of tension (which means weight stays uniform throughout the exercise), which is, again, not the case with dumbbells thanks to gravity, says Carson. Also, cable machines allow for many more movement patterns, offering more variability in the exercises you can do, he adds. Since you're able to fix the point of resistance up, down, and sideways, which you can't do on a seated arm machine at the gym, you can position your body in a variety of ways to work different muscle groups. You can stand, sit, kneel, pull, push, rotate-and effectively do a total-body workout on just this piece of equipment alone.

Not to mention, almost every move you do will force your core to stabilize against the pull of the cable, activating even more muscle groups on your body and helping you burn more calories and build functional strength. (Here's why it's so important to have a strong core.) It can also minimize injury. "By simply changing where the load is attached, cables can alleviate many of the overuse injuries that happen from dumbbells," says Carson. Try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps of chest presses facing away from the machine for an upper-body and core move.

How to Choose the Right Weight While Using Gym Machines

If you're not fatigued at the end of your sets, chances are you're picking a weight that’s too light. (Learn more on: when to use heavy vs. light weights.) The optimal weight setting on exercise machines at the gym (no matter if it's a leg machine, arm machine, or back workout machine) is a percentage of your one-repetition maximum — the most you can lift just once on each exercise machine. (Learn how to work toward your one-rep max, even if you’re new to this whole weight-lifting thing.)

Doing 12 reps using at least 50 percent of your one-rep max — the classic higher-reps-lighter-weight formula — will help you get more muscle endurance and a leaner look, says John Porcari, Ph.D., professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. But whether it's six or 15 reps (the end of the range most experts suggest), if the last two are strenuous, you're going to get results. Newbie lifters should use a gym machine weight that is 60 to 70 percent of their max and do sets of 10 to 15 reps; gym pros can go 70 to 80 percent.

And one last note to prevent hurting yourself while using an exercise machine at the gym: Don't forget to adjust the gym machines to fit your body. Keeping the seat too high or too low or placing your hands or feet in the wrong position not only makes the exercise less effective, but it can also put you at risk for injury.

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