The 5 Worst Exercise Machines, and 5 Machine Problems to Watch Out For


Well-designed gym machines enhance the effectiveness of your strength and hypertrophy training. They can minimize instability, allowing you to target and overload specific muscles. They can apply variable resistance and resistance to patterns of motion that free weights simply cannot. Good machines can also enhance safety when working with heavy loads or training to failure.

Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

The problem is that not all machines in the gym are good, useful, or worthwhile. To preface, this review isn’t the biased opinion of a fragile physio or some two-bit trainer who labels random machines as “injurious” or “non-functional.”

This is an objective, biomechanics-based, physiologically-informed discussion from a strength coach and physical therapist who uses certain machines just as often as free weights. With that said, not all machines are created equal. Here are five machines to avoid and five machine problems to avoid. 

The Five Worst Exercise Machines

The Five Worst Machine Problems

The Five Worst Exercise Machines

Some machines should be avoided because they “take” more stress and effort than they “give” results. If you’re focused on training efficiently and effectively, double-check your training program to see if any of this avoidable equipment is in your plan.

Squat Machines That Bottom-Out Before You Do

Many lifters may struggle with achieving full depth in a free weight squat. This may occur for a number of reasons — poor coordination, limited ankle flexibility, or a lack of confidence in their ability to stand up after hitting depth.

Hack squats, leg presses, and other lower-body machines that enhance a lifter’s ability to achieve full range of motion in the “squat” movement pattern are worth their weight in gold (or, more specifically, iron).

For lifters with stiff ankles, placing your feet higher or further forward on the platform decreases the amount of ankle dorsiflexion (raising your toes towards your shin) required to hit depth. The upper-body support and guidance afforded by the machine assists lifters deficient in trunk control.

Built-in safety features may empower even the most apprehensive lifters to achieve significant depth. But these built-in safety “stops” can backfire if they end the squat movement too early.

Why Avoid Them

Maybe you’ve experienced this scenario: You hop on a shiny new hack squat or leg press. Everything feels great until midway through the rep…clunk… you’ve hit the machine’s safety stop before reaching the coveted “ass-to-grass” position of full hip and knee flexion.

The machine may have been working smoothly otherwise, but its design may be shorting more than your depth. It’s likely robbing you of potential gains.

Full range of motion squatting has been associated with superior strength and power outcomes compared to partial depth squatting. (1) Although other research showed no difference in strength improvement between those squatting to full depth and those training with partials, it did report significantly greater thigh hypertrophy in the full depth group. (2)

Altogether, it seems that most lifters would benefit from squatting deep. Squat machines should facilitate, not limit, full range of motion training. If the squat machine in your gym hits bottom before you do, it’s probably not worth your time.

The “High Five” Pec-Deck

Quite a while ago, many pec-deck or chest flye machines seemed to share a common ill-conceived design — the “high five” arm position. The machine requires users to sit and reach their arms slightly behind their body at shoulder-height, and then externally rotate their shoulders to place their forearms in contact with vertical pads.

To perform the exercise, the user pulls the pads toward each other in front of their chest. These machines train the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, subscapularis, and few helper muscles. (3) They can still be found in commercial and home gyms.

Why Avoid Them

To be clear, there is nothing inherently “wrong” with this machine. It undeniably hits the pecs. (3) In fact, the total contribution of pectoralis major is likely underestimated because the muscle is put under substantial passive tension during full shoulder external rotation.

The issue with the “high five” pec-deck is not it’s lack of effectiveness, but that it’s unlikely to be universally tolerated by lifters who have existing shoulder issues. For example, when a team of physicians examined 20 weightlifters with painful shoulders, every single weightlifter reported reproduction of shoulder pain in the “high five” position. (4)

Interestingly, half of these weightlifters improved and ultimately avoided surgery with rehab and avoidance of the “high five” position. Heavy strength training in the “high five” shoulder position is thought to be associated with anterior instability. (5)(6) It undoubtedly stresses the front of the shoulder joint, including the rotator cuff.

Altogether, if you have known shoulder problems, including but not limited to stiffness, rotator cuff pathology, biceps tendon issues, or a labrum injury (e.g. SLAP tear), steer clear of the “high five” pec-deck. But don’t despair. There are more forgiving options.

Improved pec-deck designs have multiple handle options. These machines allow the user to select a comfortable position for direct chest training. As a bonus, the improved machines often allow the lifter to spin around and train rear deltoids at the same station, enabling an efficient superset.

Crunch Machines

Abdominal machines will get you off the gym floor, but that’s pretty much the only good thing about most of them. Plate-loaded and stack-loaded crunch machines are generally designed to be used either seated or lying down.

While their designs tend to reduce a multi-joint spinal movement pattern to a single pivot point, this isn’t their main problem. Their range of motion is suboptimal for building a stronger, better looking set of abs.

Why Avoid Them

When you use a crunch machine, whether it’s a seated or supine (lying down) model, you only train through a small portion of your available trunk flexion range of motion. By the time you meet the resistance of the machine, many of your spinal joints are already flexed and the abdominals are only trained in their shortened length.

For the purpose of building muscle, mounting evidence suggests the superiority of training at long muscle lengths rather than short. (7)(8) So if you’re a healthy lifter who wants to build a more pronounced six-pack, a better option is to train through a full range of spinal flexion.

Start your crunch with an extended (arched) back. To accomplish this, you can perform crunches on top of a Swiss ball or lock into a glute-ham developer (GHD) machine for controlled, full range of motion sit-ups.

Standing Calf Raise Machines

Standing calf raise machines eliminate the need to hold heavy weights when performing calf raises. They also provide a stable environment to help the lifter focus on building big, strong gastrocnemius muscles — the superficial calf muscle trained during any straight-knee calf raise exercise. (9)

These machines typically load the calves through pads that rest atop the upper traps. Therefore, the standing calf raise is an axially-loaded exercise, which means the weight is supported through the trunk and spine like squats and deadlifts.

Why Avoid Them

Calf training is accessory work, which is typically programmed toward the end of the workout. By that time, most lifters have already performed at least one heavy axially-loaded lower body exercise. If they’ve trained with high effort and intensity, their core is likely exhausted. But unless their dress code always calls for pants or knee-high socks, calf training probably shouldn’t be skipped.

By avoiding standing machines in favor of machines that apply more direct loading to the target muscles, you can reduce the likelihood that trunk fatigue interferes with building the getaway sticks you’ve always wanted.

While standing calf raise machines have been around for decades, Golden Era bodybuilders had alternatives. They used donkey calf machines, which required the lifter to bend forward to load the calves from atop the pelvis instead of the spine.

There’s photographic evidence of Arnold performing this exercise without the machine, instead recruiting a training partner or the occasional beautiful woman (or two) to sit atop his hips while he performed calf raises.

Can’t find an old-school donkey calf machine? Asking others to climb onto your hips too risqué for your globo gym?  There are plenty of alternatives to standing calf raise machines.

Purpose-built 45- or 60-degree calf raise machines load the calves through the hips. They look like mini hack squats. Rotary calf machines allow training to be performed seated with legs straight out in front of the body. If none of these options are available, a basic leg press usually works fine for calf raises while sparing you the axial-loading.

Combo Machines That Botch Both Movements

When limited floor space or budget is a concern, gym owners may be tempted by multi-function machines. Machines like functional trainers and cable columns serve as the gym’s “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” These machines are mainstays, and there are usually no problems with them. But some multifunction machines are pretty lackluster.

The plate-loaded leg extension/leg curl combo is a multi-function machine that is universally rubbish, regardless of make or manufacturer. These machines combine a seated leg extension with a prone hamstring curl. In theory, these machines are a wonderful, space-efficient station to train two important muscle groups. In reality, you’ll realize after your first set why they are on this list.

Why Avoid Them

The plate-loaded leg extension/leg curl combo only has two jobs — train the quads and train the hamstrings — and it does neither particularly well. For quad training, the resistance peaks near the top position when knees are extended.

However, knee extension torque is highest near the middle of the range of motion, not in full extension. (10) Therefore, the resistance offered by the machine does not match the strength profile of the joint being trained. Many other machines may also fall short of providing ideal resistance through a full range of motion, which is discussed in more detail in the next section.

The prone hamstring curl half of this machine, in particular, is worthless at end-range knee flexion (the contracted position). Past a certain angle of knee flexion, the resistance cuts out because the plates are pulled above the machine’s axis of rotation as you complete the curl.

If you need to use one of these machines because, say, you already have one and aren’t shelling out for two separate machines, you might be able to work around this problem by creatively rigging resistance bands.

muscular person performing hamstring curl
Credit: Dr. Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS

Ultimately, there are better machines available for your quad and hamstring training — one dedicated to quads and a separate one for hamstrings.

The Five Worst Machine Problems

Some machines aren’t inherently “bad,” they just suffer from problems that can potentially be addressed with sufficient maintenance, proper setup, or an adjustment to overall program design. Here’s what to watch out for.

Machines Full of Friction

Have you ever felt a mid-rep grinding or jerking sensation when lifting on a machine? Or, maybe you’ve felt that you have to push or pull through lots of “slop” or play in the cables and pulleys of a machine before the weight stack begins to move? If so, you’ve got a friction issue.

Common sources of friction in gym machines can be bent, rusted, or poorly lubricated guide rods; worn or cracked cable sheathing; or worn bearings. Some machines, particularly those with multiple pulleys and long belts or cables have lots of friction when factory-new. By using high-friction machines, you could be sacrificing more than a smooth lifting experience.

Why Avoid Them

The same friction that makes the repetition feel “grindy” during the positive (concentric or lifting) portion of the repetition also robs you of resistance during the negative (eccentric or lowering) portion.

What’s the harm of losing a little resistance during the eccentric phase? It could be limiting the overall effectiveness of the exercise. Our muscles are physiologically stronger during eccentric contraction than concentric contraction. In any given movement, you can lower more weight than you can lift. Therefore, the concentric phase of a typical exercise will always be the limiting factor.

When using high-friction machines, your muscles get short-changed twice-over. First, you’ll need to use less weight than you would otherwise to allow you to overcome the weight and the friction during the concentric part of the lift.

The kicker is that your muscles don’t even get to experience full resistance during the eccentric. The effective resistance during the eccentric is the weight you’ve selected minus the resistance lost to friction.

Avoid the machine “wear” sources of friction by using well-maintained machines. To avoid machines with lots of friction intrinsic in their design, look for plate-loaded machines with high quality bearings.

Machines with Insufficient Support

Well-designed machines should help you to lock-in good form and allow you to effectively load the trained movement pattern. Good machines are incredibly effective. For example, research showed that 10 weeks of training on an isolated lumbar extension machine was superior to Romanian deadlift training for improving lumbar extension strength. (11)

However, unlike the highly desirable MedX lumbar extension machine, many other lumbar extension machines lack a seat belt to secure hips during the exercise. These machines can be safely presumed to be only marginally effective.

Speaking of seat belts, if you’ve ever tried a seated dip machine without a belt or pads that lock you in the seat, you’ve experienced this phenomenon: attempt to push down more than a certain percentage of your bodyweight and you rise out of the seat. A lack of support represents a design flaw that somehow made it to market.

Receiving honorable mention in this category are cable hip extension machines and rotary hip extension machines (e.g. 4-way hip). These machines are used standing on one leg while the opposite leg is extended against resistance from a cable or pad.

Although these machines typically offer handles to assist with balance, most users struggle to stabilize their trunk and pelvis. Strong contraction of the working-side glute typically causes anterior tilt of the pelvis along with rotation. These machines ultimately limit the amount of resistance that can be used to train hip extension, and your gluteus maximus is left with minimal gains.

Why Avoid Them

Machines lacking enough support can be less effective because they limit the potential use of higher resistance loads. They can also be downright frustrating. Think about the triceps extension machine with handles above a pad that resembles a preacher curl bench. It’s basically a reverse arm curl machine.

I’ve witnessed lifters try with all their might to lean into this style of seated triceps extension machine only to push themselves away from the machine with heavy loads on the weight stack. A simple fix, such as an adjustable seat back, could greatly enhance the ability to use heavy loads and enhance the user-experience (and results).

If you’re a strong lifter who is struggling to maintain body position while using a gym machine, it’s not you, it’s the machine. Spare yourself the frustration and find a better option.

Machines That Don’t Fit Your Body

Encountering machines that don’t match your body is common, even for a decidedly average-sized lifter. If your anthropometry, or body proportion, is further from the population mean, expect to run into this issue even more often.

Watch out for machines whose axis of movement doesn’t align with your primary working joint. Single-joint machines like arm curl machines, triceps extensions, prone hamstring curls, and leg extension machines seem to be the common culprits.

Also, be aware of machines that are too tall or too short for your stature. For example, if a machine is intended to be used with feet on the floor, your feet should not be dangling. Or maybe you’re long-limbed and a particular gym machine does not allow you to press or row through your full range of motion.

Why Avoid Them

It should be obvious that a gym machine with poor ergonomics will deliver a less-than-stellar user experience. Beyond that, questions arise regarding the effectiveness of exercises performed on misfit machines.

Are muscles and joints being trained through their intended ranges of motion? Are fit issues precluding the use of effective resistance loads? Are misalignments between the machine’s geometry and your body creating abnormal joint stresses?

If a machine doesn’t feel right, it is unlikely to help you accomplish your training objectives. When you encounter a machine that doesn’t fit, despite the use of all available adjustments, it’s time to move on.

Machines with a Poor Resistance Curve

A machine’s resistance curve describes the pattern of variable resistance the user experiences throughout the range of motion of the exercise. Machines can be designed to apply variable resistance to the lifter via the use of levers and irregularly shaped cams.

The classic example of variable resistance is the Nautilus shell-shaped cam. The cam was intended to apply more resistance during the part of the exercise where the lifter is stronger and less resistance where the lifter is weaker.

While no machine matches each individual lifter’s strength curve, or capacity to demonstrate strength throughout the range of motion, the resistance curve should correspond with the generalized strength curve of the movement pattern. (12)(13)

In theory, machines engineered to accommodate the general human strength curves should be superior to free weights, which exert a constant resistance relying on gravity. It should also be noted there is certainly no consensus regarding the superiority of variable resistance training or free weight training for increasing strength. (12)(14)(15)

Why Avoid Them

For the moment, let’s limit our scope to single-joint training for simplicity’s sake. When variable resistance, cam-based arm curl machines were compared to circular, cam-based arm curl machines, the variable resistance version was superior for strength gains and slightly better hypertrophy gains have been reported. (16)(17)

These results make sense, as circular cams generally do not match the generalized strength curve of the movement being trained. In general, you should choose the oblong-shaped cam machine over the circle-shaped cam machine for single-joint training. But what about other machine designs for other body parts? You’re going to have to feel them out.

You might encounter a machine that applies variable resistance in conflict with the movement pattern’s strength curve. For example, a lever-based pressing machine with a low pivot point may apply heavier resistance at the bottom position.

This design would conflict with the pressing movement pattern’s ascending strength curve (where you’re typically stronger at the top). (13) This type of machine is likely to limit the overall weight used for the exercise and may ultimately reduce its effectiveness for building muscle and strength.

You don’t have to be a biomechanist to qualitatively determine if a machine’s resistance curve is good or poor for yourself. A good resistance curve will just… feel right. With heavy loads, you will feel that you can exert maximum effort into the machine throughout the full range of motion without losing connection with the resistance, creating excessive momentum, or grinding into a pronounced sticking point. High-quality machines are “buttery” through the full range of motion.

If a machine feels extremely difficult during a one portion of the range of motion and allows for rapid acceleration elsewhere, it may have a poor resistance curve. If this is the case, you’re better off finding a different machine or switching to free weights for a comparable exercise.

Machines Redundant to Effective Free Weight Options

Some free weight exercises are simply damn good and deserve to be in your program. The trap bar isn’t beaten by a shrug machine. If you want to do seated shrugs, sit on a bench and use heavy dumbbells.

For rack pulls, it’s perfectly fine to get in the squat rack. The Smith machine might’ve became the go-to for this exercise in recent years, but a good old barbell lifted from the safety catches works just fine, arguably with superior carryover to your conventional deadlift due the specificity principle.

The point is, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. And gym equipment manufacturers and gym owners need to receive that message.

Why Avoid Them

The decision to avoid a machine in favor of an equally-effective free weight variation is an “exercise” in restraint. Just because a machine is available doesn’t mean it needs to be used.

If you and others at your gym exercise this restraint, the gym’s management will likely take notice. A machine that doesn’t get used in a public gym doesn’t stick around. With any luck, the valuable gym real estate occupied by the redundant machine might soon be filled with a new machine.

Hopefully it will be something unique and effective, such as a good plate-loaded pullover, standing lateral raise, or pendulum squat. Or maybe management will swap out the redundant machine with another squat rack or whatever popular piece you’re constantly waiting for at your gym.

References

  1. Pallarés, J. G., Cava, A. M., Courel-Ibáñez, et al. (2020). Full squat produces greater neuromuscular and functional adaptations and lower pain than partial squats after prolonged resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science20(1), 115-124.
  2. Bloomquist, K., Langberg, H., Karlsen, S., Madsgaard, S., Boesen, M., & Raastad, T. (2013). Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. European Journal of Applied Physiology113(8), 2133-2142.
  3. Kuechle, D. K., Newman, S. R., Itoi, E., et al. (1997). Shoulder muscle moment arms during horizontal flexion and elevation. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery6(5), 429-439.
  4. Gross, M. L., Brenner, S. L., Esformes, I., & Sonzogni, J. J. (1993). Anterior shoulder instability in weight lifters. The American Journal of Sports Medicine21(4), 599-603.
  5. Escalante, G. (2017). Exercise modification strategies to prevent and train around shoulder pain. Strength & Conditioning Journal39(3), 74-86.
  6. Kolber, M. J., Beekhuizen, K. S., Cheng, M. S. S., & Hellman, M. A. (2010). Shoulder injuries attributed to resistance training: a brief review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(6), 1696-1704.
  7. Maeo, S., Huang, M., Wu, Y., et al. (2021). Greater hamstrings muscle hypertrophy but similar damage protection after training at long versus short muscle lengths. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise53(4), 825.
  8. Sato, S., Yoshida, R., Kiyono, R., et al. (2021). Elbow joint angles in elbow flexor unilateral resistance exercise training determine its effects on muscle strength and thickness of trained and non-trained arms. Frontiers in Physiology12.
  9. Landin, D., Thompson, M., & Reid, M. (2015). Knee and ankle joint angles influence the plantarflexion torque of the gastrocnemius. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research7(8), 602-606.
  10. Guenzkofer, F., Engstler, F., Bubb, H., & Bengler, K. (2011, July). Joint torque modeling of knee extension and flexion. In International Conference on Digital Human Modeling (pp. 79-88). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  11. Fisher, J., Bruce-Low, S., & Smith, D. (2013). A randomized trial to consider the effect of Romanian deadlift exercise on the development of lumbar extension strength. Physical Therapy in Sport14(3), 139-145.
  12. Carpinelli, R. (2017). A critical analysis of the national strength and conditioning association’s opinion that free weights are superior to machines for increasing muscular strength and power. Medicina Sportiva Practica18(2), 21-39.
  13. Wallace, B. J., Bergstrom, H. C., & Butterfield, T. A. (2018). Muscular bases and mechanisms of variable resistance training efficacy. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching13(6), 1177-1188.
  14. Dos Santos, W. D. N., Gentil, P., de Araújo Ribeiro, A. L., et al. (2018). Effects of Variable Resistance Training on Maximal Strength: A Meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research32(11), e52-e55. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002836.
  15. Andersen, V., Prieske, O., Stien, N., et al. (2022). Comparing the effects of variable and traditional resistance training on maximal strength and muscle power in healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.
  16. Urbanik, C., Staniszewski, M., Mastalerz, A., et al. (2013). Evaluation of the effectiveness of training on a machine with a variable-cam. Acta of Bioengineering and Biomechanics15(4).
  17. Staniszewski, M., Mastalerz, A., & Urbanik, C. (2020). Effect of a strength or hypertrophy training protocol, each performed using two different modes of resistance, on biomechanical, biochemical and anthropometric parameters. Biology of Sport37(1), 85-91.

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