Most gyms today contain different types of resistance training equipment. These broadly fall into two categories – machines and free weights. Volumes of literature could be written on the ongoing argument between the use of strength-training machines or free weights, but here we shall conclude that both are important and complement each other in muscle training. Neither of these two tools is perfect. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. And yes, believe it or not, there are countless advantages of using exercise machines. However, some exercise machines are worse than others and can cause serious damage. So what gym machines should I avoid? What are the worst exercise machines out there? In this article, you’ll discover exactly that – the most dangerous pieces of gym equipment.
Why certain exercise machines can do more harm than good?
It all comes down to the likelihood of injury. Specific gym machines can put you in a position that can do more harm than good especially if they’re done incorrectly and unfortunately many of these exercises are very common. Most people assume that any machine that is put into a gym is safe and effective to use. But that’s not the case. Having many different machines in a gym may be helpful for selling gym memberships, but basic dumbbells and barbells are typically far more effective than the majority of the complex machines that you see at the gym.
Therefore we want to zoom in and focus on 8 machines that you’re better off replacing or at least changing how you use them. Some common machines at the gym can be really bad for your joints and lower back. Below you can find out what machines stand out as the most dangerous—and how you can stay safe during your workout (if you choose to use them anyway). You will probably be very unpleasantly surprised to find out that these are some very popular exercise machines.
Let’s start with the very popular Smith machine. The Smith machine is weight training equipment that consists of a barbell that is fixed within steel rails. It can actually be effective if you perform certain exercises that can only be done on the Smith machine. However, most people use this machine as an alternative to exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses which were all intended to be done with a regular barbell.
Many people performing these exercises on the Smith machine are under the impression that it’ll decrease their risk of injury. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The issue is that the Smith machine is locked into a set range of motion and has a set barbell path. This means that when you’re bench pressing, for example, the barbell is forced to go up and down in a fixed straight line. This is bad for your shoulders and it increases the chances that you flare your elbows as you lower the barbell down. In a regular bench press, your path would almost be an arch-like motion from lockout down to the chest.
Looking at squats we see a similar issue. Since the bar is locked into a set range of motion, squatting on a Smith machine isn’t biomechanically natural. This is why most people end up squatting by leaning back against the bar. Not only does this take away huge benefits for your core muscles, glutes, and hamstrings, but if you were to lean back like that using a regular barbell you would fall straight back.
On top of the bad positions that your joints are going to be in, you’re not going to be working your stabilizer muscles since the bar is locked and already stabilized for you. In fact, stabilizer muscle activation is about 43 percent lower on a Smith machine compared to regular barbell squats. This can create a lazy lifting technique and will only provide a small fraction of the results that you can get from doing these exercises with barbells and dumbbells, especially in regard to functional strength.
Pattern overload is another concern. Say you do only one exercise for shoulders – overhead barbell presses – and you do them only on a Smith machine. That means you work them at the exact same angle each time you enter the gym. If anything about that angle rubs them the wrong way, you’re screwed.
Hip abduction & adduction machine
Another machine that you want to stay away from is the hip abduction and the hip adduction machine. We typically use these machines to train the glutes and inner thighs. However, there are better alternatives that are far more effective – like squats and lunges for example. Both of these machines require using heavy loads in order to be challenging. One immediate issue is that naturally, your body would never lift heavy loads this way in real life. The only time these muscles would be engaged at a higher level would be when you’re doing single-leg activities, like walking lunges. Moreover, even then they would mostly just be used for stabilization, not force output.
Instead, as you get stronger at the hip abduction machine you’re going to target a muscle known as the TLF or the tensor fasciae latae – a muscle that attaches at the top of your iliotibial band and is a vital muscle that helps stabilize the hip and knee. This muscle can easily get overworked and tight which will pull on another muscle known as the IT (iliotibial) band and that quite often leads to knee pain. The heavy weight loads used on both the adductor and the abductor machines can also easily lead to a lower back injury.
The last thing that we will say is that these machines do not and will not help you reduce fat from your inner and outer thighs. This may be common sense for most of you, but many people using these machines are still under the impression that they will slim their thighs by simply opening and closing their legs with added resistance.
Leg press machine
The leg press is another quite dangerous exercise machine. Luckily, you don’t have to get rid of this machine entirely but we do recommend you change up the way that you’re using it. This is especially true if you have issues with your lower back. Many people believe that the leg press is a safer alternative to barbell squats for your lower back. However, that’s not at all the case. When doing leg presses your back is pinned against the pad in a way where it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the natural lumbar curve as your knees bend and come closer to your chest.
As you go further and further down your pelvis will begin to round forward while pinned between the weight and the pad behind you. Dr. Stuart McGill, a well-renowned professor and researcher, clearly states that the leg press sometimes causes the pelvis to rotate away from the back rest when the weight is lowered. This leads to lumbar flexion which produces herniating conditions for your discs. This means that you can only perform short reps in a limited range of motion. Also, on any given rep that you decide to get that nice stretch by going a little lower down you run the risk of a serious lower back injury.
Most people are better off replacing the leg press with something that allows for a more full range of motion – like squats, lunges, or Bulgarians. They all help develop your posterior chain, your core, and your entire lower body in a way that’s more transferable to real-life activities like lifting a box off the floor. When you’re squatting pretty much every muscle is being recruited. Even the stabilizer muscles in your feet are actively preventing you from falling on your face. On the other hand, the leg press is entirely stabilized for you by the machine.
Therefore, after exhausting your legs with something like squats and lunges, you can add three or four sets of leg press as a finisher at the end of your workout. This way you don’t have to use a ton of weight for it to be effective.
However, we strongly recommend that you do it with only one leg at a time while the other leg stays down. By keeping one leg down you ensure that your pelvis will stay locked and it’ll be prevented from rotating as the weight comes down, making it much safer for your lower back.
Torso rotation machine (sated twist machine)
If you want to avoid an injury directly to your spine we recommend staying away from this one. It’s usually set up where you put your knees in between two pads and you rotate your lower body from side to side. There are a number of issues with this machine. For one, if you accidentally turn too far on any rep you can cause serious injury to your spine and your discs. Therefore, if you are planning on using this machine any way you should at the very least limit your range of motion and use a lighter weight. The other issue is that even if you do the exercise very carefully, the lumbar spine is not designed to handle this type of twisting movement. Higher segments of the spine, like the thoracic spine, are more so designed for twisting.
The seated twist machine keeps your upper body locked while requiring you to twist your lower body. This puts more pressure on the lower spine which isn’t designed for this kind of twisting. In regard to athletic performance, the core is mostly supposed to decelerate rotational force rather than accelerate it. Due to its high injury risk, it simply doesn’t make sense to use this exercise. It’s not that effective for your core and you can easily find better alternatives.