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Fairytales from the gym - The machines are taking over

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I would put in my "fantasy gym". So far, it has a sauna, a ninja warrior gym zone and an underwater treadmill.

One thing that doesn't feature very heavily in my fantasy gym however, is resistance machines.

There are some resistance machines I'm down with. I love a plate loaded leg press. The gym I train at also has what I like to call "the bum machine" (a glute isolator) which allows a lot of load on a movement that is hard to scale. I'm also down with the odd chest press machine and their ilk - they are great for people who are a bit nervous of getting under the bar. There's definitely a place for resistance machines in most people's programming, so I'm not talking about binning them all.

But there's a phenomenon I've noticed in most gyms, where some users - usually the newer, more nervous or untrained users (often long term gymgoers who have just never had any support past induction) base their strength training around having a go on each machine in turn. And I get that, because if you don't know how to plan a balanced workout, a bit of everything seems like a safe bet. And I also get that those racks of dumbells or enormous barbells are daunting.

While I was working out last week, I noticed a pair of new members trying to figure out a preacher (bicep) curl machine. Like most resistance machines it has a number of adjustment one can make to make it fit right, but either these members didn't know how to adjust properly, or the machine just wasn't a good fit for them (which is also common, lots of people really struggle to get comfortable on bi/tri machines). A little while later I overheard one tell the other that they thought they had injured themselves on the machine.

And that my friends, is when I realised I needed to write this post.

Many people think that by sticking with the machines, they are somehow safer, or less likely to "get it wrong". I'm just not convinced by that, and I think that idea lends itself to a lack of care.

Gym doggo says "don't forget your gym towel and water bottle"

Getting the setup right

One of the real benefits of a resistance machine is that when it is set up correctly, it should promote good form through the full range of motion. The issue with this is that not all machines are adjustable enough to correctly fit all shapes and sizes of users, and not all users are taught how to properly adjust every machine in their gym. Or if they are, they can't be expected to recall the exact points of reference for every machine.

For instance, on a bicep curl machine, you want the hinge of the mechanism to align with your elbow. But to get there, you need to be able to get the seat to the right height. Personally I find they are often built for people with longer arms or torsos than I have, and also the having-of-breasts can make it hard to get close enough to the elbow pad. Getting the right set up for a good lift is a little tricky. However, if I grab a dumbell and rest my elbow on a preacher bench or the raised back of a standard bench, my body will find a healthy, ergonomic range of motion with absolutely no problem. Or, if I used a low cable machine set up, and locked my elbows to my sides - magic, everything is right and proper.

If you do prefer to use a resistance machine, that's great too, but get an instructor at the gym to show you how to adjust the machine to "fit" you, and make a note of the key points to check for, or the number on the adjustment lever.

Good form with freeweights.

I'm going to let you in an a magic personal trainer secret here. There are pretty much only 4 types of large movement. There are some smaller movements and isolations which put the cherry on the top of your workout and are important if you are bodybuilding and want every little muscle to pop, but for general fitness, you really only need to know 4 big exercises:
  • The upper body push (press)
  • The upper body pull (row)
  • The hip hinge
  • The quad dominant (squat)
There are of course, literally dozens of variations of each of these, but the cues for correct form are much the same across the board. If you can be aware of the key points for keeping your body in good alignment, then the rest should fall into place.

Firstly - neutral spine. In almost every strength exercise you aim to keep your spine in a neutral position - this is kind of straight, but allowing for the natural curves that spines have. Eyes are straight ahead keeping the neck in line with the rest of the spine.

Now for the specifics:

Upper body push

This is your chest press, push ups, incline press, to an extent your overhead press too.
  • Focus on neutral spine (unless you are powerlifting, but that's a whole other animal), feet on the floor, gaze straight ahead.
  • Wrists straight, first knuckles point in the direction of the movement.
  • Move in line with the mid chest/armpits

Upper body pull

Rows, all the rows, also pull ups.
  • Neutral spine - avoid arching with exertion, or twisting your back in single arm movements.
  • Elbows in
  • Bring hands towards armpits.

Hip hinge

This is your deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning etc. The hips pull back, like if you were stood with your back to a wall, about a foot away, you'd be trying to press your butt on the wall, then snap forward like Lord Flashheart. WOOF!

OK, maybe not quite like that, but you get the idea.
  • Neutral spine
  • Hips slide back, not down
  • Knees do not bend excessively
  • Chest proud at the top
  • Shoulder blades strong

Quad dominant

Here's your squats, lunges etc
  • Neutral spine 
  • Knees point the same way as the toes
  • Weight back (there is a tendency to shift to the toes, sit into your heels in a squat and weight the back foot in a lunge or split squat)
  • Chest proud, imagine someone on the other side of the gym needs to read your shirt
  • Hips low, knees high

So get yourself into the freeweights area

Here's a little starter workout for you to try:

Warm up 

3-5 minutes on your favourite cardio machine, start lazy, increase the speed, level, incline or whatever you like, every 30 seconds or so until you are feeling warm and a bit breathy.


Bend over and reach for your toes, keep your back straight on the way down, reach opposite hand to opposite foot.
Swing your arms from by your sides to over your head a few times.
Hug yourself, open your arms wide and do it with the other arm on top.
Do a couple of back lunges.

Weights - 2-3 sets

Choose a weight that leaves you feeling like you've "had enough" by the last couple of reps.

Farmer's walk - Nice heavy dumbells, keep chest proud - 30 yards walk in laps if necessary
Goblet squat 10-12 reps
Kettlebell deadlift (could use a barbell) 10-12 reps
Dumbell chest press - 12-15 reps
Bent over row 12-15 reps
Split squat 10-12 reps
Overhead press 12-15 reps
Russian twist 10-14 reps

Cool down

Go back through the mobility exercises, then stretch out upper back, chest, quads and hams. Finish with a steady jog or walk on the treadmill to keep things loose.

If you aren't sure how to do some of these, you should go and check out (and subscribe to) my YouTube channel where I have a constantly growing series of no nonsense, straight to the point demos in this playlist.


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