Build More Muscle By Combining Free Weights With Machines

group-of-women-using-exercise-machinesBelow is a quick recap for all you SnapChat addicts that are like, “I don’t have time to read, just gimme the goods!”

Fine… just be a dear, and share the article!

  • Most machines are about as useful as a wet toaster
  • Do your compound lifts first (squat/bench/deadlift/cleans etc.)
  • Use barbells, then dumbbells, followed by machines
  • The hierarchy: UH (unstable + heavy load) > UL (unstable + light load) > SF (stable + free weight) > SL (stable + load)
  • You’ll be rewarded with a proven workout routine that delivers awesome results if you bother to read this article

I’ll be honest with you, most workout machines you see at commercial gyms have a well deserved, shitty reputation from many top strength coaches and/or personal trainers who know what they’re doing.

And the reason for it is simple – they know you can get greater results from your efforts with compound free-weight exercises such as Presses, Squats, and Deadlifts.

Personally, I haven’t bothered to touch two-thirds of the mechanical contraptions at my gym… at which I’ve been a member at for almost a decade. What’s funny is the look on my friend’s faces when they ask me to show them how X, Y or Z machine works, and receive my go-to response: “honestly, I have no fucking clue! Why don’t we deadlift instead?”

Having said that, there is still a place for certain machines in your routine – especially if fat loss, metabolic conditioning or building muscle happen to be one of your goals. But only if you follow the hierarchy of training! You see, your body works as an entire unit, so you need to train it as such. I still don’t know of a single physical task in life where you need to specifically isolate a muscle group… so why would you train this way most of the time?

Doesn’t make any sense, does it?

But when you train the body as a unit, there will come a time when smaller stabilizer muscle groups (such anterior and medial deltoids) will start to fatigue well before the primary ones that you are trying to work (such as pectorals). This is where machines can come into play – because they isolate a specific muscle group which can be worked to exhaustion without affecting the smaller stabilizers.

On top of that, they can be a great tool in helping you build up your lactic acid threshold; this means improved growth hormone levels, greater fat loss, along with other physiological goodies that I’m not going to get into too much detail right now. Just know that it produces the results you want.

The Hierarchy Of Training

lesley_unger1. Unstable + Heavy Load (UH)

A UH exercise is any big compound movement which can be heavily loaded with free weights. So Deadlifts, Squats, Benchpress, PowerCleans, Overhead Press, Snatch, Overhead Squat etc. are all great examples. I refer to it as “unstable” because your stabilizers will have to fire and their recruitment will play a huge role in the success of the lift. And no, it’s NOT a UH exercise when you’re using stupid pieces of equipment such as the Bosu ball and other “functional” nonsense. The Bosu stuff is something I like to group into EI (Extreme Instability) exercises, which should be used only for physio/rehab purposes as far as I’m concerned.

2. Unstable + Light Load (UL)

An UL exercise is any compound movement that cannot be loaded as heavily as an UH. So DB Bench Press, DB Pullover, Goblet Squat, Kettlebell Swings etc. Again, it’s referred to as “unstable” because your stabilizers will need to fire but the load that you’ll be able to manage will not be nearly as high as an UH exercise. If you’ve ever compared your maximum lift in a regular BB Bench Press to the DB Bench Press then you know exactly what I’m talking about. A guy with a solid 315lbs BB Bench Press will have a very challenging time with 120 lbs DB’s in each hand.

3. Stable + Free Weight (SF)

A SF exercise is any pre-determined movement/isolation exercise which can be loaded with free weights. So BB curls, Preacher Curls, DB Kickbacks, DB Shoulder fly etc. It is referred to as “stable” because while there is a protagonist/antagonist situation happening, the recruitment of stabilizers is very low, making the exercise itself already very stable in nature.

4. Stable + Load (SL)

And finally, we get to SL, which is basically anything to do with machines. So a machine preacher curl, quad extensions, ab curl nonsense, leg press, pec deck, Smith Machine bullshits etc. There is barely any protagonist/antagonist involvement and the recruitment of stabilizer muscles is minuscule. The primary reason that I, or any other strong, logical and good looking trainer doesn’t bother using machines is because by the time we go through UH, UL and SF exercises, we’ve worked hard enough to not bother with it.

But what do you see from most of the numb-headed bros?

They walk into the gym and jump right on the machines faster than Charlie Sheen on a hooker. I’d say that ninety percent of the time, if you have enough energy left to do SL exercises at the end of your routine, you probably didn’t work hard enough (with minor exceptions such as the leg press).

So which group of individuals make up this 5%? Bodybuilders, powerlifters or any advanced trainees looking to maximize their muscle gains. I usually prescribe a SL exercise when the primary goal is hypertrophy, because it allows you to pack on lots of volume in a given amount of time.

Also, I’ve found that some clients have muscle groups which are just so goddamn stubborn, that they will refuse to grow past a certain point unless you completely demolish them. Let’s say that your moobs (man boobs) is a particular problem area, and refuses to grow. Here’s a simple routine you can follow which obeys the hierarchy of lifting:

  • 5×5 BB BenchPress
  • 4×8 DB BenchPress
  • 3×8 Weighted Dips
  • 3×8 DB Flys
  • 2×15 Machine Chest Flys

If that doesn’t give you a shirt-ripping chest then either you’re lifting like a total pansy, or aren’t eating enough. Point blank period.

Final Thoughts

I never thought I’d be recommending machines and their use in a person’s routine but here we are. The simple fact of the matter is that since most commercial gyms these days are filled mainly will machines, we need to find a decent use for them in our training. As long as their presence doesn’t creep into the Dumbbell, Barbell and Squat Rack area I guess I won’t bitch like an old man too much.

If you enjoyed this article then don’t forget to share it with your friends. If you have your own thoughts or ideas about training with machines, feel free to drop them in the comment section below; I’m open to a discussion.

Finally, if you’re tired of not seeing results then grab one of our training plans by hitting the button below (I recommend BIG 5 if muscle and strength are your goals!)

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About The Author

Coach Sahil is the founder of HTS, a National Deadlift record setter and author of a multitude of books. Click Here to learn more about him.


  • Ergonomic Footrests October 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

    I spend my days sitting at some drafting tables inside an office and it seems so unhealthy to never be outside. I recently starting getting up every 30 minutes and doing a walk around the office just to be active. It truly does pay off. Great post by the way. Great to see people on the same page!
    Thanks for post..

  • Tom Parker October 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Great post FJ. My gym is full of machines. The free weights area used to be a small corner with 4 benches. They recently refurbished it so it has got slightly better but machines still dominate.

    1 thing I personally find machines useful for is getting through plateaus on free weights. For example, sometimes if I’m stuck on a certain weight on dumbbell chest press I really focus on the machine chest press for a few weeks. Since I don’t have to physically lift anything above my chest with the machine chest press I find it easier to increase the weight and gain some strength. With this increased chest strength I am then able to chest press the dumbbells I was previously struggling with.

  • Norswanday October 30, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    “Some people have muscle groups that just so fucking stubborn that they will refuse to grow past a certain point unless you completely demolish them”

    I must agree with your point on this, i’ve seen a few individuals do all kind of fitness muscle programs and train like a crazy horse but yet not seeing any improvement that they should see. I believe this could be a genetic issues.

  • filo October 31, 2011 at 12:57 am

    don’t push this “instable/stable” bullshit, jesus. just stick to “compound/isolation” or “multi-joint/single joint.”

  • Rob November 2, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Interesting. Being a free-weight-loving man myself I feel the same way. I do throw in machines here and there to “change it up” but I always feel like it’s just giving me a break from the real work. Plus, the machines at my gym don’t have “real weight numbering” it’s like 1-20 and 14 is about 210lbs and the only reason I know that is because I can hang from the lat pull down ;P

    I do have a question though, and it involves the reason I still throw machines in here and there. My father had a big all in one at his house and I would use it for workouts while I was there growing up, but as it got older the cables got sticky and the resistance it had was definitely more dificult than your standard machine. So, it felt like you had to press a lot harder to get it moving, where as free weights if you’re doing a weight you can easily handle you can explode and they obviously move faster. I was just wondering if there is any research or scholarly journals on different types of resistance like that.

    I feel like I know that it is good to use a machine like that, if you know the situation, but i also feel like it could be dangerous for someone who thinks that if they slam on it and expect it to move faster. Anyways this has turned into a much longer diatribe than I intended; I just stumbled upon your blog while trolling fitocracy this morning.

  • articles on product reviews December 20, 2011 at 5:19 am

    Been going to the gym to loose weight few years ago. I even had a personal trainer, but after stopping I got bigger twice my size.. :(

  • Sadfriend September 14, 2012 at 6:55 am

    The biggest plus for me is the fact that most machines isolate muscles that usually can’t be isolated so easily with free weights. So I can for example train my quads for a physio therapy purpose.

    But people obviously need to know why and how to properly use machines in their workout before they start flinging around

  • EVERTH CAMPOS February 15, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    You are a GENIUS!!!

  • Denny February 15, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Great article, I like to lift, but I had shoulder replacement surgery 3years ago and I am not suppose to lift over my head, any workouts that don’t require these moves or substitute the moves?

One Trackback

  • By Joseph 365 on December 10, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Finding this site…

    Wow, this article is good and very informative.

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