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Free Weights vs. Machines – Alternatives to Common Gym Machine Exercises

Gym machines are more prevalent than ever, but they’re not always easily accessible, which is why we’ve put together some gym machine exercise alternatives to try out in such situations.

From simple piles of weights paired with a pulley and resistance bands, to elaborate, multi-directional machines that facilitate dozens of workouts, gym machines have taken the gym-world by storm.

The Machines Versus Free Weights Debate

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  • Rise of the Resistance Machines
  • The Legendary Jack LaLanne
  • Brief Overview of Resistance Machines
  • Examples of Common Free Weights
  • From Public to Home Gym – Machine Alternatives

Related: Beginners Guide to Gym Equipment Names & Pictures

Hotel gyms, chain gyms, and local gyms throughout the world have opted to fill their space with resistance machines, for reasons ranging from their visual appeal to the fact that they’re harder to steal.With all these advantages, many fitness purists, however, vastly prefer free weights to resistance machines, and they have strong reasons for this as well.

Luckily, every workout done on expensive gym machines can be replicated with affordable equipment that can easily be stored in your home gym. After brief overviews of why people prefer gym machines over free weights or vice versa, eleven gym machine workouts are analyzed to find the optimal home gym alternatives.

Rise of the Resistance Machines

Invented by Jack LaLanne in the 1950’s, resistance machines bridged the gap between the casual fitness enthusiast and heavy strength training. Resistance machines removed a lot of the intimidation factor of having to load a set of weights onto a barbell, by replacing them with a simple system that locks in the exact amount you want to lift.

Adding to their appeal for beginners, resistance machines also got rid of the requirement to stabilize the weights, greatly reducing the amount of technique required to do major strength workouts. With his invention of both the first cable pulley weight machine and the first leg extension machine, Jack LaLanne single-handedly changed the layout of gyms forever.

The Legendary Jack LaLanne

Legend Of Jack Lalanne

Among the many fitness-related accomplishments of Jack LaLanne was the invention of the Smith machine, essentially the first self-spotting squat rack. The Smith machine eliminated a lot of the risk of injury from doing squats by stabilizing the barbell, limiting it to up or down movements.

Jack’s influence on the fitness world only begins with his invention of three resistance machines. In addition to having the first fitness show on the air for 32 years, Jack LaLanne invented the first nutrition bar, founded the first coed health club, and was the first to sell exercise equipment on television.

Brief Overview of Resistance Machines

From the first Smith machines that made squats safer and easier, to the modern Total Gym machines sold on TV by Chuck Norris, there are resistance machines for all muscle groups. The earliest used stacks of weights supported by a metal key and cords, an effective system that’s still used in gyms today.

New innovations include even easier ways to switch the weight like buttons and levers, and more advances in comfort and capability. For example, a lot of weight machines in major gyms function as mini-gyms themselves, able to support up to four people doing various workouts on them at once. After perusing the pros and cons of resistance machines, it’s clear that they have traits that set them apart from free weights.

Advantages of Resistance Machines

The main reason why many hotel gyms and unguarded gyms opt to have resistance machines over free weights is that free weights can be easily stolen.

For major gyms, resistance machines offer the advantage of instant usability. For example, someone who has never lifted weights before can walk into a major chain gym, and can very likely figure out how to do calf raises based on the diagrams stamped on the machine.

Resistance machines leave little room for error, taking all of the stabilization, technique, and risk out of heavy lifting. However simple or elaborate, resistance machines are targeted at working major muscle groups, and do so with minimal guess work or risk of injury.

Drawbacks of Resistance Machines

For those who like to workout in their home gym, resistance machines have the added drawback of being very expensive compared to free weights. Many bodybuilders have a more technical reasons to dislike machines.

While the limiting effect of machines makes exercises easier for beginners, it completely removes the need to stabilize, thereby neglecting important muscles. This is the main reason that bench pressing your max with a barbell feels dramatically different from bench pressing the same amount on a machine.

The machine will be easier, but it’s only the exact major muscle group that is getting a workout, not the surrounding small muscles that are required for proper technique. A lot of strength training enthusiasts argue that using a machine does not provide a functional, realistic workout.

Examples of Common Free Weights

Although anything with appropriate weight can serve the function of a free weight, the ones most often seen in gyms are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells.

Numerous workouts are available with each type of free weight, and items like a bench or rack can facilitate even more. If you plan on stocking your home gym with a series of free weights, then a dumbbell rack and other storage equipment is available to keep everything organized.

While the dumbbell and barbell have been popular for decades, the kettlebell has seen a massive resurgence in popularity, primarily due to the success of Cross Fit and other functional workouts. Some companies sell more eclectic strength training equipment that falls under the free weights category, including 20lb steel maces, sandbags, and medicine balls.

Advantages of Free Weights

While most people wouldn’t call free weights cheap, they are definitely more affordable than an entire resistance machine. Once you’re confident enough to discover new workouts and try them, then free weights offer a limitless variety of new workouts.

Unlike a resistance machine, free weights allow for a full-range of motion, which means that the smaller muscles used to stabilize the weights also get a workout. It’s also notable that free weights are used in any tournament, weightlifting class, or Olympic event ever held because the proper technique can be taught and practiced with the use of free weights.

Drawbacks of Free Weights

Risk of injury would be the most notable drawback of free weights when compared to resistance machines. Improper technique can cause injury and negate benefits, all without the lifter knowing until they get sore in all the wrong places.

Also injury related, is the fact that free weights can be hazards to those who happen to walk by and trip over a dumbbell for example. Another disadvantage of free weights in comparison to machines is that they require knowledge, skill, and technique to use effectively.

Someone blindly walking up to a dumbbell for the first time might have no clue how to use it, whereas machines are frequently simplified and have diagrams posted for ease of use. Despite these concerns, free weights are indisputably the top choice for strength training among most bodybuilders.

Free Weights vs. Machines – From Public to Home Gym

Public gyms have six-figure budgets with which to buy the most advanced and attractive machines that will bring customers in. Those who are building the perfect home gym very likely do not have that same amount of space or budget to work with.

Fortunately, each and every one of the machine exercises seen in gyms throughout the world can be replicated using small and affordable free weights that we can easily stash in our home gym. As we delve into 11 of the most common and effective machine exercises, take note of the alternatives that appeal to you.

Revisiting the list afterwards may reveal some additional workouts you’d like to incorporate into your routine, especially if some muscle groups may not have been getting enough attention.

Related: Learn How to Build the Best Home Gym on a Budget

Machine Exercises and Alternatives

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  1. Seated Cable Rows (Back)
  2. Lat Pulldowns (Lats)
  3. Back Extensions (Lower Back)
  4. Leg Extensions (Quads)
  5. Leg Curls (Hamstrings)
  6. Glute Kickbacks (Glutes)
  7. Pec Deck (Chest)
  8. Cable Crossovers (Chest)
  9. Tricep Pushdowns (Triceps)
  10. Abdominal Machines (Abs)
  11. Rear Delt Flies (Shoulders)

Machine Exercise: Seated Cable Row (Back)

Seated Cable Row Machine Exercise

What is it?

Made popular by machines like the Concept 2 Rower, the seated cable row is one of the more advanced machine workouts available in gym settings. This is primarily because rowing machines are designed specifically for a rowing workout, and as such, many will have heart rate monitors in the handles, and will display your workout progress.

If you love the burn of a rowing workout but don’t have $1000 laying around for a decent rowing machine, then some of these alternatives can work the same muscles as a rower with equipment that’s easier to obtain.

Alternatives to the Seated Cable Row – Instructional YouTube Videos

  • Inverted Row – (Fixed Bar or Rack + Barbell)
  • Dumbbell Rows – (Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Bent Over Barbell Rows – (Barbell or Swiss Bar + Weights)
  • Bent Over Double Dumbbell Row – (Dumbbells)
  • Landmine T-Bar Rows – (Beater Bar + Landmine + Landmine Handles)
  • Seated Band Rows – (Resistance Bands + Grip Triangle or Wide Lat Attachment)

Machine Exercise: Lat Pulldown (Lats, Upper Back)

Lat Pulldown Exercise

What is it?

Arguably the most common machine found in various gyms across the country is the Lat Pulldown machine. Characterized by a dangling handle and usually a seat, lat pulldowns let you choose a weight, grab the overhead bar, and while keeping a good posture, pull the weighted bar to a point behind your head, thereby working the back and shoulders.

A further advantage of this workout is that it’s essentially reverse pullups, and since pullup equipment is relatively difficult for a lot of people, the lat pulldown enables you to build up to a point where you can do effective pullups. In addition to variations of the pullup, some alternative workouts can be done with dumbbells, a landmine, and other easily attainable equipment.

Main Alternative to Lat Pulldown: Pullups

  • Regular Pullups
  • Resistance Band Pullups
  • Low-bar Pullups
  • Other Alternatives to Lat Pulldown
    • Dumbbell Rows – (Utility Bench + Dumbbells)
    • Bent-Over Barbell Rows – (Barbell + Weights)
    • Landmine T-Bar Rows – (Beater Bar + Landmine + Landmine Handles)
    • Barbell Bent-Arm Pullovers – (Bench + EZ Bar + Weights)
    • Seated Band Rows – (Resistance Bands + Grip Triangle or Wide Lat Attachment)
    • Lat Pulldowns From Power Rack – (Spuds Inc Economy Pulley System)

Machine Exercise: Back Extension Machine (Lower Back)

Back Extension Machine Lower Back

What is it?

Of all strength workouts, those that engage the lower back are to be treated with extra care. The reason for this is that although basic back extensions are a harmless and effective workout, adding excessive weight to a lower back exercise can cause nasty back problems, even as severe as injury to the lumbar discs.

When using the alternative workouts to work the lower back, avoid injury by erring on the side of less weight, and pay particular attention to posture and proper technique to avoid back issues. Ultimately, the lower back is as important a part of the core as the abdominal muscles, and should definitely not be neglected.

Alternatives to Back Extensions – Instructional YouTube Videos

  • Back Extensions – (GHD, or Hyper-Extension Bench)
  • Back Extensions – (Yoga Ball, Optional Weights)
  • Superman – (Body Weight)
  • Good Mornings – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – (Dumbbells)
  • Olympic Clean & Jerk – (Olympic Barbell + Bumper Plates)
  • Olympic Snatch – (Olympic Barbell + Bumper Plates)

Machine Exercise:  Leg Extension Machines (Quads)

Leg Extension Machines (quads)

What is it?

The leg extension machine is great for developing quad muscles, but has become one of the more controversial machines in the weight room for other reasons. Some trainers claim that the limiting nature of the leg extension machine can actually damage the knees, and others dislike the machine claiming that it gives marginal results.

Nevertheless, for those who want to build quads, the leg extension machine will definitely contribute, but for a more functional free weight alternative, try these 10 quad-boosting exercise.

Free-Weight Alternatives to Leg Extension Machines

  • Classic Barbell Squats – (Barbell + Squat Stand + Weights)
  • Front Squats – (Barbell + Squat Stand + Weights)
  • Power Clean – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Barbell Hack Squat – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Bulgarian Split Squat – (Barbell + Utility Bench or Box)
  • Dumbbell Lunges – (Dumbbells)
  • Barbell Lunges – (Barbell)
  • Step Ups – (Body Weight; Plyometric Box or Bench)
  • Box Jumps – (Body Weight; Plyometric Box)
  • Wall Balls – (Medicine Ball)

Machine Exercise: Leg Curl (Hamstrings)

Leg Curl (hamstrings) Machine Workout Exercise

What is it?

The leg curl machine is the one with the bench connected to cylinder-shaped padding. Occasionally misused as in the viral video mentioned here, leg curls are known as an effective workout for isolating your hamstrings.

The isolation is good for your hamstrings, but ignores the surrounding muscles, leading some to shun the leg curl machine for lack of functionality. Fortunately, exercises like glute ham raises and stiff-leg deadlifts can work the hamstrings without the need of a leg curl machine.

Free Weight Alternatives to Leg Curls

  • Good Mornings – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Glute Ham Raises – (GHD)
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts – (Dumbbells)

Machine Exercise: Glute Kickback Machine (Glutes)

Glute Kickback Machine (glutes)

What is it?

For some, the glutes are among the most important areas to consistently workout. Much like the chest, abs, and biceps, glutes are a major visible muscle group that people notice. Few muscle groups are as appealing to both men and women as well-toned glute muscles.

The glute kickback machine features bars to hold on to, and a lever at about knee height with which you move the weight with your leg. Like other machine workouts, the glute kickback machine isolates the glutes, and more functional workouts can be found in these 11 alternatives.

Alternatives to Glute Kickback Machine

  • Barbell Squats – (Barbell + Squat Stand + Weights)
  • Front Squats – (Barbell + Squat Stand + Weights)
  • Barbell Hack Squat – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Bulgarian Split Squat – (Barbell + Utility Bench)
  • Dumbbell Lunges – (Dumbbells)
  • Barbell Lunges – (Barbell)
  • Glute Ham Raises – (GHD)
  • Good Mornings – (Barbell + Weights)
  • Step Ups – (Body Weight; Plyometric Box)
  • Box Jumps – (Body Weight; Plyometric Box)
  • Standing Band Kickbacks – (Resistance Bands)

Machine Exercise: Pec Deck Machine (Chest)

Pec Deck Machine (chest) Exercise Alternatives

What is it?

For men especially, the chest is one of the most popular muscle groups to give attention to in the gym. The pec deck contributes to building your chest by enabling butterflies, a workout where you sit and press two padded levers together in front of you with your arms.

Although all exercise machines permit limited movement along a plain, most pec deck machines allow you to adjust the arc and height of the butterfly arms, significantly altering the workout for comfort. Butterflies are a great workout for the chest, and they are not limited to just a machine. Dumbbells can be used to do effective flies as well, and chest dips and cross overs with straps provide excellent alternative chest workouts as well.

Alternatives to Pec Deck Machine Workouts

  • Dumbbell Flyes – (Utility Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Incline Dumbbell Flyes – (Adjustable Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Chest Dips – (Dip Station or Dip Attachment)
  • Cross Over – (Stackable Resistance Bands)

Machine Exercise: Cable Crossover Flys (Chest)

Cable Crossover Flies (chest) Machine Exercise Alternatives

What is it?

Cable crossover flys via a cable and pulley machine also work the chest, but give a better control of angle than a pec deck machine. Rather than just allowing a horizontal plane of movement, cable crossover flys will typically allow you to adjust how high, wide, or far apart the cables start from.

Otherwise, the movement is similar to a fly in that your arms cross in front, and almost touch at the pinnacle of the exercise. The different adjustments are made to target different parts of your pecs, and the workout overall is highly respected compared to most machine workouts. Alternatives include flies, dips, and any free weights workouts that targets the pecs.

Alternatives to Cable Crossover Flies Machine

  • Dumbbell Flyes – (Utility Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Incline Dumbbell Flyes – (Adjustable Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Chest Dips – (Dip Station or Dip Attachment)
  • Cross Over – (Stackable Resistance Bands)

Machine Exercise: Tricep Pushdown (Triceps)

Tricep Pushdowns (triceps) Workout Machine

What is it?

Triceps are used in throwing, boxing, and other athletic endeavors, and as you might expect, exercises that work the triceps are very popular. Another machine exercise that is highly respected in the gym, the tricep pushdown is a reliable way to work the triceps, and the range of movement isn’t as limiting as a lot of other exercise machines.

For the triceps pushdown machine, find the dangling strait or angled bar, assume a stance with good posture, and while keeping the arms tight, push the bar down until your arms are strait pointing downward. With the use of easy to obtain gear such as dumbbells and resistance bands, a nice array of alternatives are available for working the triceps.

Alternatives to Tricep Pushdowns Machine Workout

  • Tricep Pushdowns – (Resistance Bands + Pressdown Rope or Revolving Pressdown Bar)
  • Tricep Pushdowns – (Spuds Economy Pulley System)
  • Close Grip Bench Press – (Power Rack + Barbell + Weights)
  • Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extensions – (Utility Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Bench Dips – (Body-Weight; Utility Bench + Optional Weights)
  • Seated Tricep Press – (Bench + Dumbbells)

Machine Exercise: Abdominal Machine (Abs)

Abdominal Machines (abs) Alternative Exercises

What is it?

Abs are such a crucial part of the body’s core that no one should neglect an ab workout. From runners to ballers, every athlete needs strong abs to get the job done. To work the abs, a lot of gyms invest in an ab machine, a device that lets you add weight resistance to your ab workout.

While the machine is pretty effective and user friendly, there are tons of excellent workouts that can be done in your home gym with little or no equipment. From crunches to jack knives, leg raises to planks, the abdominals are a muscle group with a wide array of bodyweight workouts available.

Alternatives to Ab Machine Workouts

  • Crunch – (body weight)
  • Ab Rollouts – (ab wheel)
  • Jack-Knives – (body weight)
  • Hanging Knee Raise – (pull-up bar + body weight)
  • Kneeling Crunch – (resistance bands or Spuds Econo Pulley System)
  • Oblique Crunch – (body weight)
  • Lying Leg Raises – (body weight; optional: ankle weights, optional: yoga ball)
  • Hanging Leg Lifts – (body weight, optional: ankle weights)

Machine Exercise: Rear Delt Fly (Shoulders)

Rear Delt Fly (shoulders) Machine Exercise Alternatives

What is it?

The rear delt fly machine features a seat and a chest pad that keeps you from sliding forward. While sitting and facing the rear delt machine, the next move is to adjust the chest pad to a point where you can comfortably grab the handles. Pulling the weight back engages the deltoids, providing a potent and effective workout for the shoulders.

Depending on the workout gear you have available at your home gym, multiple alternatives can work the shoulders as efficiently as the rear delt machine.

Alternatives to Rear Delt Flies Machine

  • Reverse Dumbbell Fly – (Adjustable Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Seated Dumbbell Fly – (Utility Bench + Dumbbells)
  • Rear Delt Fly – (Stackable Resistance Bands + Optional: Wall Anchors)
  • Rear Delt Fly – (Crossover Symmetry System)
  • Face Pulls – (Resistance Bands + Pressdown Rope or Econo Pulley System)

Finding the Alternatives That Work for You

Whether your home gym is stocked with kettlebells, dumbbells, or an array of random workout gear, reliable exercises exist for working out all of the major muscle groups. While expensive machines may make gyms look more appealing, they are certainly not the only way to get potent training.

By knowing the optimal ways to engage key muscles using our home gym equipment, we can find the ones that make the greatest impact, and take our fitness to levels never thought possible.

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