The Five Worst Gym Machines: Top Trainers Tell What Doesn't Work

When it comes to the pursuit of a better body, image isn't everything. That's because the shiny, intimidating, powerful-looking machines cluttering up your gym floor aren't nearly as good a workout as the one you can get with some dumbbells, your own body weight and a mat. "Machines are eventually going to be obsolete in major gyms," says Patrick Murphy, an L.A.-based celebrity trainer. That's because while your body is built to use lots of muscles in lots of ways, most machines isolate single muscle groups and work them in a static up-and-down, forward-and-backward regime. They also provide the opportunity to take a load off, preserving precious calories that you might otherwise be burning.

It's time to wean yourself off your machine routine and start building a workout designed around dynamic movements that incorporate several muscle groups at once. You'll not only build a better body, you'll do it faster. "When you train in an integrated way, you can cut workout time in half because you're not just isolating one muscle," says exercise physiologist Geralyn Coopersmith, the senior national manager in charge of staff training at Equinox Fitness. These movements will keep your heart rate elevated, burning calories during your workout and raising your metabolism afterward. "You just get benefit on top of benefit on top of benefit," she says. So stop wasting time: start by banishing these five worst offenders.

1. Any machine that ads weight to a basic crunching motion could spell big trouble for your back. "Most of us sit in crunched up position all day. So to go into the gym and do the same thing, but add weights to that movement is really counterintuitive," says Coopersmith.
The crunch in and of itself is not a great way to strengthen your abs. "You want to train your body to hold your spine in the proper position," says Lou Schuler, author of The New Rules of Lifting. And as your mother always told you, "hunched up" is not the proper position. Try planks for an ab-specific exercise, and during the rest of your workout, focus on keeping your core strong and your abs fired. If you're standing our sitting on a Swiss ball while you weight train, your abs should be providing stabilization and power for every move, which will in turn help sculpt and strengthen them.

2. The leg extender, like many of the machines in this article, is great for bodybuilders looking to showcase specific muscle groups to a panel of judges. It's also a good fit for people recovering from weeks of bed rest, who need the extra support. For everyone else? A waste of time. It hits all the false notes when it comes to working out: sitting, isolating one muscle, and working that muscle two-dimensionally. "As trainers, we're always looking for transfer of training. At the end of the day, did that leg extension transfer into anything you do on the tennis court, or chasing your kids?" asks Coopersmith. "No. All it did was isolate your quads." Squats and lunges will give you a more complete workout, especially if you lunge in all directions (think of it as standing in the center of a clock; try to hit all 12 degrees while still keeping your form)

3. It's not necessarily the twisting and torquing that this machine requires – though that's not great either – it's our tendency to want to overload it with weight and then max out on repetitions, all in pursuit of the perfect abs. "There are so many small muscles in your oblique and working them against a weight like that can be very, very dangerous," says Murphy. ("An absolute nightmare," clarifies Schuler.) The Glute Isolator (wherein you lie on your stomach and kick up against a weight pad) is another machine on which overzealous exercisers can damage small muscle groups. "People get obsessed with them and will do five to six sets of 20 reps," says Coopersmith. "It's an enormous amount of load in an ineffective way."

4. Or any other machine that has the two halves of your body lifting the same weight in the same motion. Human bodies are not perfectly symmetrical: one pec might be stronger, one shoulder might be higher, one bicep might be larger. "To sit on a machine and have that machine decide how both of your arms are going to move through a trajectory, against a resistance is pretty much asking for something to get hurt," says Schuler. "Something's got to give there." You can replicate the movement of the shoulder press without the potential for injury by using dumbbells. Love the machine and refuse to give it up? Find one that allows you to move each arm independently.

5. First of all, you're much too dignified to look so ridiculous. Second of all, it doesn't work, and can injure the smaller muscles in your thighs. Squeeze a small medicine ball between your knees when you squat, or do some lunges, especially lunges done on a diagonal plane.