10 Machine-to-Free-Weight Swaps to Improve Your Strength Gains

 by Linda Melone

Years ago, machines were all the rage at the gym. Manufacturers spent a lot of time and money to make theirs the latest and greatest, says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director of Saco Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine. In fact, we used to train football players on machines, which wed never do now.


Years ago, machines were all the rage at the gym. Manufacturers spent a lot of time and money to make theirs the latest and greatest, says Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director of Saco Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine. "In fact, we used to train football players on machines, which we'd never do now." Here's why: Machines lock you into a predetermined path of motion, which takes away the ability to challenge and strengthen core and stabilizer muscles. In short, they don't mimic functional movements. "Strength doesn't transfer as well from machines to daily activities as well as free weights," says Nutting. This does not, however, mean you must lift heavy weights to get results. "Starting out with your own body weight still qualifies as a free-weight workout," says Nutting. And keep in mind, when switching from a machine exercise to a free-weight version, use lighter weights than you used on the machine until you perfect your form, since the same weight will feel more challenging. Try these machine-to-free-weight swaps to take your results to the next level and add variety to your routine.

1. Replace Leg Press Machine With Barbell Squats

Pushing a heavy object with your legs while seated can contribute to back pain over time. "Squats get the glutes as well as the hamstrings and is a much more productive exercise," says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS, author of "Beat the Gym." HOW TO DO THEM: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and cross your arms in front of your chest, resting each hand on the opposite shoulder. Keep your head up and your chest high, eyes focused straight ahead. Keep your weight in your heels as you lower yourself toward the ground by bending at the hips and knees. Continue lowering yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can go while keeping your heels on the ground ). Pause and slowly stand back up and repeat 12 to 15 times. Add weight as you get stronger by performing the move with a weighted bar across your shoulders.

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2. Replace Leg Extension Machine With Kettlebell Split Squats

The movement of this machine -- sitting and extending your legs outward -- is simply not functional, says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS. "Plus, it creates a lot of shear force on the knees." The split squat targets quads without the excess stresses of the leg-extension machine. HOW TO DO THEM: Stand about two feet in front of a bench, hands on hips. Lift up and position one leg behind you on the bench, most of your weight should be on your front leg. Keeping the back leg steady and stable, bend the front knee as you lower your hips toward the ground in a lunge. Do 12 to 15 reps and switch legs.

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3. Replace Leg Curl Machine With Stability-Ball Leg Curl

The hamstring muscles are responsible for both knee flexion and hip extension, but the leg-curl machine only requires knee flexion, which limits its benefits. Leg curls on a stability ball require both core and hamstring strength. HOW TO DO THEM: Lie on your back with legs straight, heels on the ball. Raise your hips by pressing your heels into the ball and lift up until your shoulders, hips and heels form a straight line. Keep your hips raised as you roll the ball in toward you by bending your knees, then slowly roll back out by straightening your legs. Do not allow hips to drop throughout the range of motion. Continue rolling out and back for 12 to 15 reps. For a greater challenge, balance on one leg.

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4. Replace Overhead Press Machine With Overhead Dumbbell Press

Using dumbbells instead of a machine allows you to naturally work with the entire range of motion of your shoulders, says Jessica Smith, certified personal trainer and creator of the "The Best Weight Loss Workouts" DVDs. "The machine makes you work in a specific track that may not be best for your shoulders or specific limitations." Plus, if done standing, overhead dumbbell presses also work the core and keep the entire body engaged (as compared with a seated press machine), which means you're working more muscles and burning more calories for the same exercise. HOW TO DO THEM: Stand with feet hip-width apart, abs braced tight and shoulders stacked over hips. Extend arms overhead and control the weight as you lower back to starting position without arching backward. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.

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5. Replace Triceps Extension Machine With Overhead Dumbbell Extension

Poor posture during the effort of the extensions, such as rounding the shoulders or jutting the neck forward, is a problem on this machine and can also strain the elbow joint if not used properly, says personal trainer Jessica Smith. The overhead dumbbell extension, on the other hand, allows for better posture and alignment of the spine, plus it activates the core more. HOW TO DO THEM: Drop your chin slightly toward your chest, lean forward just a bit and brace your abdominals. Stand holding a dumbbell with both hands wrapped around the same end by making a triangle with your thumbs and forefingers. With your upper arms next to your ears and elbows up toward the ceiling, slowly lower the dumbbell toward the center of your back. Pause and slowly straighten arms to return to the starting position. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

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6. Replace Ab Roller With Plank Knee Tuck on a Ball

An ab roller can be a challenge to use properly, says personal trainer Jessica Smith. "People don't have the core strength needed to roll out and back without the hips sagging to the floor, which can strain the lower back." A similarly challenging move called the plank knee tuck works the same muscles but avoids the lower-back issue. HOW TO DO THEM: Walk out to a full plank (top of a push-up position) with a stability ball positioned under shins. Brace your abs and bend your knees into your chest, rolling the ball toward your body and lifting your hips to make room for the ball. Reverse the motion and return to a full plank. Your shoulders should be positioned over your hands in both the plank and tuck positions, and focus on drawing your abs in deeper to the spine during the tuck position. "It helps to exhale during this phase of the exercise for an even deeper contraction," says Smith. And make sure to keep your spine neutral and arms strong as your legs extend back out to full plank.

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7. Replace Chest Press Machine With One-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press

Chest-press machines use their own line of force, which limits the range of motion, says strength and conditioning coach Mark Nutting. Using dumbbells requires more muscle stability and allows for a greater range of motion. Performing a single-arm dumbbell press further maximizes the core challenges by forcing you to stabilize your body while lifting weight on only one side. HOW TO DO THEM: Lie on your back on either a bench or stability ball, holding a dumbbell in one hand out to the side with your elbow bent at a right angle or "goalpost" formation. Keep you other arm across your body for balance. Brace your abdominals and bring the dumbbell up and toward the center of your body, then slowly lower it back down to starting position. Repeat 12 to 15 times on each side.

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8. Replace Chest Fly Machine With Cable Fly

As with the chest-press machine, the chest fly (or "pec deck") forces you into a set range of motion, with the added danger of positioning the machine's arms too far back, which can strain shoulders. "The cable equivalent provides a major benefit in that it gives resistance by pulling from behind you and out," says certified strength and conditioning coach Mark Nutting. "You also have to use your core to brace yourself since you're standing up." HOW TO DO THEM: Grasp opposing high-pulley attachments and stand with pulleys on each side of you. Bend over slightly by flexing the knees and hips. Bend elbows slightly and bring cable attachments together in a "hugging" motion with elbows in a fixed position. Slowly return to starting position and repeat 12 to 15 times.

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9. Replace Seated Rowing Machine With One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Up the ante on the seated row by using dumbbells and working one arm at a time. When you use both arms together, you enable the stronger arm to take over, but you avoid that with one-arm dumbbell rows, which enable you to strengthen your weaker side. HOW TO DO THEM: Place one knee and the same-side hand on a bench for support and make sure your back is parallel to the ground. Position your other foot slightly back and to the side, then pick up a dumbbell with your free hand. Using a slow and controlled rowing motion, pull the dumbbell up toward your ribs on that side, pause and slowly return back to starting position. Repeat 12 to 15 times before switching sides.

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10. Replace Shoulder Raise Machine With Lateral Dumbbell Raise

Performing shoulder raises with dumbbells allows you to alter the movement to make it easier on your shoulder joint, says personal trainer Mark Nutting. HOW TO DO THEM: Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your palms together in front of your thighs with your elbows slightly bent. Raise your arms up and out to the sides until your elbows are at shoulder height; pause and return to the starting position. "The position should be more 'thumbs up' and closer in toward the body," says Nutting. "Positioning them a little in front of the shoulder is also easier on the shoulder joint." Repeat 12 to 15 times.

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What Do YOU Think?

Do you primarily use machines or free weights for your strength-training workouts? Which do you prefer and why? Tell us in the comments below and share your favorite strength moves or swaps with the community!

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