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Let’s get PHYSICAL

by Archives November 23, 2005

The road to rapid muscle and strength gains is paved with variety, which is why most serious lifters favour free weights over machines. Too often, machine-based routines become monotonous, muscles adapt and progress is halted, but when the iron isn’t attached to contraptions, the variations are endless and muscle fibers continue to multiply.

Weight machines don’t deserve the bad rap they’ve been saddled with, however. The real problem isn’t with the equipment, it’s with the lifters. Most gym junkies never stray from the faded directions slapped on the machines at the factory, yet they wonder why their routines get repetitive. Read on for a new set of operating instructions guaranteed to ramp up any tired machine circuit and produce results that would please even hardcore lifters.

Alter your alignment

Most weight machines operate on a fixed path of motion, meaning every rep from first to last is identical. This can lead to “pattern overload syndrome,” which is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. The fix? You need to challenge your muscles from a variety of angles. Change up your body position by adjusting the seat height, alternating your grip or switching up your stance between sets. Your muscles will be left guessing and be forced to work harder to adapt to the altered path of motion. The benefit? You’ll build bigger muscles and avoid injury.

Skip the support

Bracing yourself against a machine lessens the intensity of the exercise you’re performing. The fix? Pretend there’s wet paint on the support pads of the equipment and refrain from touching them throughout your sets. The benefit? Your core muscles will get in on the workout.

*Note: Only experienced exercisers who’ve already developed considerable core strength should attempt this technique; beginners risk lower back injuries if improper form is employed.

Focus on the negative

One major downside of choosing machines over dumbbells is that the cable and pulley system allows your stronger side to overcompensate during certain exercises. The fix? Single-arm negatives: overloading your muscles during the eccentric (the lowering) portion of the lift. Start by selecting a weight that’s about 60 per cent of the amount you can lift five times and push the weight up normally. At the top of the move, pause, then remove one arm from the handle and lower the weight as slowly as you can. Complete four sets of five reps, switching arms each set. The benefit? SERIOUS BURN!

Compensate for poor design

One size doesn’t fit all, especially when it comes to weight machines. Lifting equipment often forces you through a line of motion that’s inconsistent with the way you naturally move. The fix? Place a rolled up towel between your body and the support pads to alter your position and make the movement more comfortable. The benefit? It reduces your risk of injury and better trains your muscles for the way they’ll be used in real life.

Get the best of both worlds

Like machine routines, even dumbbell exercises can get repetitive after awhile. The fix? Rev up your workouts by combining the two techniques. Attach cables to your wrists when doing dumbbell bench presses, chest flyes and other free weight staples. The benefit? Your muscles will be forced to work against both vertical and horizontal resistance and will bulk up as a result.

Feel the burn at the finish

If you pump out three sets on the fixed path of a machine without altering the resistance, chances are you’re not tiring your muscles out. The fix? Finish strong with a drop set. Start with the most weight you can lift six to eight times and do as many reps as possible. Immediately drop the weight by 20 per cent and do six to eight more reps, then drop the weight another 20 per cent and do a final six to eight reps set. The benefit? You’ll work your muscles to failure and your strength gains will skyrocket.

The next time you find yourself avoiding fixed equipment in favour of free weights, reconsider your reasoning and give the machines another go. You may find that mixing up the ol’ dumbbell routine is just what you need to propel you past a fitness plateau.

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