In a far-ago land called the 1990s, gyms like Gold’s and Bally’s—30,000-square-foot monstrosities anchoring strip malls—dominated the fitness landscape. Your membership included saunas and whirlpools and showers and lockers and daycare and enormous rooms filled with hundreds of exercise machines, each one designed to target some tiny muscles we weren’t even sure existed.
You could train your anterior deltoids, your lateral deltoids, and your posterior deltoids separately. Nevermind most of the inhabitants of these gargantuan complexes didn’t know the difference and probably didn’t care. They just wanted to build a little muscle and strength and shed some body fat. They were really hoping simply to look good naked, not unlike most people who go to gyms today.
Not that things are all that much better for the average gym goer walking into the same giant room in 2019. Only now, all those perplexing exercise machines have been replaced with… literally nothing besides perhaps a few iron posts with holes drilled in them every few inches mounted to the walls like medieval torture devices. All that jumping on and off plyo boxes and carrying stuff around that somebody found at the local junkyard makes us yearn for the days of ferns and juice bars and endless mirrored walls and shiny chrome exercise machines.
Without further denigration of past or present, here are three exercise machine holdovers from the good ole days that are worth rotating into your training routine from time to time.
- Chest-supported Row
Most back routines I recommend begin with a compound mass and strength building lift like deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts. From there, I have most trainees move to some form of rowing to target the mid-back. The meat and potatoes lift here would be the barbell bent over row.
The only downside to bent over rows is that you’ll be asking your already fatigued lower back to hold a static contraction for the duration of the set. Many find they’re simply not up to this task, so they either do fewer reps than intended or reduce the weight substantially.
Enter the chest-supported row, a magical little invention for training the mid-back that eliminates stress from the lower back by, as the name implies, providing a pad on which to rest your chest and brace for support.
As with most exercise machines, you’ll have quite a few from which to pick. The forebearer to modern variations, and still a fine choice, is the old chest-supported T-bar row. It’s plate-loaded, and the pad is usually angled somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees. As is the case with many exercise machines, there’s almost no learning curve. Just position yourself with your feet on the footplate and lean forward so your chest rests on the pad, grasp the handles, and row away. Your hands are just “hooks” holding the handles, and your focus should be on driving your elbows rearward.
More modern versions commonly found in most gyms include the seated row, low row, and high row. To use these, you’ll typically sit upright on a seat and position an adjustable chest pad so that it’s snug against your chest before grasping handles that can be positioned high, low, or pretty much right in front of you. All these angles are offered simply to target the back muscles in slightly different ways, and you should try all that your gym offers to see if one provides a noticeably stronger contraction.
Sure, you could just do a one-arm dumbbell row using your non-working arm to brace against a weight bench and achieve roughly the same purpose as any of these machine variations, but you may notice a couple deficiencies with the dumbbell row. Because you’re only working one side at a time, the contraction you’re able to achieve may not be as intense. Being able to retract both scapulae together seems to improve muscle activation for many in a way you’ll simply have to experience to validate.
Additionally, if protecting a fatigued lower back is the goal, the dumbbell row may fall short for all but the strictest form policers. Most people tend to heave the weight just a bit and also twist a little at the top in a misguided effort to raise the bell a bit higher. This slight loosening of form that, in this case, is almost more a function of the exercise itself than any egregious form breakdown can lead to the annoying lower back tweak you were trying to avoid in selecting a braced row variation.
Providing either superior muscle activation, improved safety, or both, my money is on a chest-supported row, if you have access, over free weight variations.
- Cable Crossover
The cable crossover is a space-eating monster impractical for home gyms, but it’s one of the most versatile exercise machines in which a commercial gym can invest. I recommend it so enthusiastically because of the continuous tension it provides that can be superior, for some exercises, to that offered by dumbbells or barbells.
Try this little experiment next time you’re at the gym. Grab a couple of dumbbells, lay back on a bench, and do a set of flyes. Now head over to the cable crossover and do a set with the high cable handles. You may have to fiddle just a bit to find the right angle for your torso and to keep the cables from rubbing against each other as you cross your hands and squeeze in the contracted position, but oh that contraction! At just about the point in the movement where you hit that dead spot with dumbbells and lose the feel, the cables are kicking in for that intense contraction that leads to a massive chest pump.
Now of course we all know that pump made famous by Arnold’s never-ending quest to achieve it is not the be-all and end-all of muscle growth. That 1970s era myth was dispelled long ago. Certainly, becoming very strong on compound lifts like squats and presses that may not lend themselves as readily to that pumped feeling many refer to as “the burn” is where new trainees should spend the bulk of their training time.
But, if you’re going to isolate a muscle group for a few sets to really finish it off after you’ve worked your compound lift—a tried and true approach to program design—you do want to target the area you’re trying to train as effectively as possible. The continuous tension offered by the cable crossover makes it a great choice for isolation exercises like flyes, lateral raises, and rear delt raises.
Simply designed pulley and cable units were among the first exercise machines ever introduced in gyms. Their effectiveness and versatility for a multitude of exercises limited only by the user’s imagination gave them staying power that continues even today.
- Leg Curl (progressing to Glute-Ham Raise)
Most experts agree that muscle imbalances—stronger quadriceps than hamstrings—can lead to hamstring pulls during running and sports participation. Fine and dandy, so we better make a point to train our hamstrings and make them stronger.
We typically train our hamstrings with deadlift variations like stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts. These are fantastic exercises to be sure, but they tend to target the muscle higher up, near the origin.
Flexion of the knee joint is an excellent way to work the muscle belly and insertion of the hamstrings, and that’s exactly what the leg curl machine does. And let’s all be honest, two or three sets of leg curls just isn’t that tough or time consuming to bang out at the end of a workout, particularly if doing so might mean the difference between staying in the game or rehabbing an injury for months that could have been prevented pretty easily.
Before the advent of CrossFit, you could only find the Glute-Ham Raise, commonly abbreviated GHR, in collegiate weight rooms. It’s a piece of specialty equipment with limited application, has a rather large footprint, and requires a fairly substantial base of strength to perform correctly. It operates on the same principle as the leg curl—flexion of the knee joint—only your upper body acts as the resistance as you use your hamstring muscles to raise and lower your torso, while your feet are held stationary by the lower leg pad and foot plate.
Most trainees will have to work up to the GHR over time by building hamstring strength with deadlift variations and leg curls. Once you’re able to perform the movement correctly, however, you may find the GHR superior to the leg curl. It might not even technically be an exercise machine since there aren’t any moving parts, but I haven’t seen a person who could perform full range of motion repetitions on the GHR who didn’t have well-developed hamstrings.
While the bulk of your training should be based around compound movements performed with free weights, including a few well-chosen exercise machine movements can help you build even more muscle and strength and address weaknesses and imbalances. Furthermore, you just might find that you enjoy that 1990s-style bro pump you can get by isolating muscle groups with quality exercise machines.
For a complete catalog of exercise machines, visit the IRON COMPANY strength equipment section featuring plate loaded exercise machines, selectorized, power cages and squat racks, weight benches and more.
About the Author
Visit Chuck Miller's website for more of his writing on a variety of topics, including his strength training book, Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon (foreword by IRON COMPANY featured writer, Marty Gallagher).