Chances are you’ve done at least one of these exercises at some point or another. While there’s a time and place for each of these, I want to highlight a few in the hopes that your time at the gym can be better spent. Just because you see people using a machine in the gym, or you’ve read about it, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective.
1. Smith Machine Squats (SMS): Squats are one of the best compound movements you can do for the lower body, Smith Machine Squats, however, are not.
Traditional squats require the core and lower back for stabilization, the entire body working in unison to perform the movement. SMS on the other hand, isolate the legs and put greater stress on the knees, especially when the legs are placed too far forward (as they commonly are when using the machine). This typical stance, legs too far forward while leaning back on the bar for support, is unbalanced and can lead to injury (in additional to just being plain ineffective).
Any exercise performed on a fixed plane puts you at a greater risk for Pattern Overload Syndrome (POS). In short, POS is an injury to the soft tissues, caused by repetitive or single plane motion. An entire article could be written on this topic alone, so for now, I will point you in the direction of a great article by specialist Paul Check, which elaborates further.
Still think SMS are “safer” than your traditional squats? I think not. Sure, they may make you feel more confident as they are easier to perform, but you’re much better off having someone qualified teach you how to squat with the proper form and weight.
2. Abduction/ Adduction machines: Women especially seem to gravitate towards these machines, believing they can “spot reduce” those trouble thigh areas. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as spot reduction and this being another isolation exercise, just means it’s less effective. Stick to compound movements (such as squats and lunges) and a healthy if you want to improve your legs.
Note: These are a fine exercise to throw into your routine, as long as you’re pairing them with your main compound lifts.
3. Abdominal Crunch Machines: When using these machines you’re isolating the abs, which may sound good, but in the real world the abdominal muscles never work in isolation. Physiologically, the abs contract as a way to protect the spine and use the hip flexors to do so.
Ab machines are designed specifically to take the hip flexors out of the movement, allowing the arms, shoulders, and legs to assist versus relying on the core for strength. You’re much better off letting the core do the work and sticking to some solid exercises such as V-ups, reverse crunches, and Hanging Leg Raises.
4. Lat Pull-down’s Behind the Head: While I’m sure you’ve seen many people doing this exercise at the gym, the reality is that very few people have mobile enough shoulder joints to keep their spines straight enough during this the exercise.
When performed incorrectly, the movement can stress the rotator cuff muscles and lead to shoulder injury. Stick with traditional lat pulldowns, keeping the bar in front of your collarbone.
5. And finally, stop leaning on the cardio machines!: You’re much better off decreasing the speed or incline and letting your legs do the work. Putting unneeded stress on the wrists and shoulders doesn’t help matters, and you won’t be burning additional calories.
Think about it, the reason you’re leaning/holding yourself up in the first place is to “make it easier.” You’re aware of your form while lifting and cardio shouldn’t be any different!