Let start by saying, you should never abandon dumbbells or barbells as they are time-tested bodybuilding techniques, some lifters do claim that machines make a movement too easy, especially on leg day because you are not having to balance the weight or that they do not successfully replicate everyday activities as you are artificially supported.
These folks are just suffering from a bit of imagination is all, because you are not having to balance the weight it means you can safely handle larger loads. The fixed, controlled range of motion provided allows you to better isolate the target muscle with a weight that increases the overload.
Here are four very good lower-body exercises that prove that machines don’t have to be abandoned altogether,
This isn’t exactly on the machine but it is pretty close. The unconventional start position on the floor allows you to train unilaterally against the smooth, plate-loaded resistance of the machine.
The Move: Grab a mat and place it on the floor just in front of the leg-curl station but just beyond the machine’s lever. Face away from the machine and start on all fours as you would do for a bodyweight glute kick-back. Extend one leg out directly behind you, placing the foot securely on the leg-curl pad, keeping your knee bent at 90 degrees and off the floor. Push through your heel and extend your leg back to full extension.
The Perk: You can really feel the glutes working on this one and it takes stress off your lower back. Often, when doing a standing kick-back using cables, you invite momentum or the low back becomes more involved than it should. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
This flipped move adds versatility to the hack-squat machine, instead of placing your back against the pad, which would target the quads, you can change the muscular emphasis by facing the pad instead.
The Move: Facing the pad, position your shoulders squarely under the shoulder pads and your upper chest against the back pad. Machines differ by manufacturer but be sure to get a secure footing with your entire foot supported. With your body angled on the bench, ensure your feet are positioned in line with the rest of your torso. Unlock the handles and extend through your hips and knees to rise to the top. From this point, inhale deeply and lower the weight by bending at your hips and knees making sure to keep your back flat.
In a reverse position, your back is unsupported so it is important to keep it flat throughout. At the bottom, forcefully press through your feet to full knee and hip extension without locking out at the top. Also, some machines force your head to turn to the side, this really disrupts cervical alignment so be extra careful not to push with your head.
The Perk: The hip flexion given by this range of motion allows you to increase the involvement of your glutes and hamstrings. Depending on the size of the platform, you can adjust your foot placement in or out to enlist different areas of your legs, narrow for the outer sweep and wider to hit your teardrop and inner thigh muscles, but you should still keep your feet near the base of the platform.
Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
Romanian deadlifts are the best exercise for hitting your glute-ham tie-in and there are many variations of this well-known exercise, including this one that does not make use of free weights. I like to take advantage of the constant tension afforded me by cables to target this area.
The Move: Attach a D-handle to the lowest setting of a cable station so that the handle is at ground level when starting. Facing the cable stack, grab the handle with one hand and step back about 2 to 3 feet to infuse the cable with tension.
Start on your left side holding the attachment in your left hand. Keeping your left foot planted, elevate your right leg up and behind you as you hinge forward at the hips, pushing your glutes back and stretching forward a bit with your left arm in the hamstrings-extended position. Contract your hamstrings to rise back up against the added resistance, keeping your arm extended so you’re not pulling with your biceps and lats, repeat all reps on your left side and then switch to the right and repeat.
The Perk: I always try to include some kind of unilateral training into my leg day with at least 1-2 exercises and some form of single-leg deadlifts. I think it is great that I am able to perform these in a slow, controlled manner and really able to focus on the mind-muscle connection as each rep is so controlled. I also get in a bit more of a stretch on this one than I would with either dumbbells or kettlebells.
Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
I started experimenting with this move as an alternative to normal jump squats, I like to incorporate weighted jump squats but I don’t want to jump around with a bar across my upper back and risk injuring myself with the barbell shifting or have weight bearing down on my neck when performing this motion.
The Move: Start with two D-handles or bar at their lowest setting, ideally at a Freemotion machine. Facing the machine, grab the handles and back away 2-3 feet to infuse the cables with tension. Holding the handles in a front-squat position, descend into a squat then explode up and off the floor. Land softly and descent immediately into the next rep.
The Perk: Because the anchor point for the weight is low and in front of you, your jump is somewhat up and back. This means a slightly greater contribution from your quads to keep the movement under control. I like to vary the width of my starting stance to emphasize different areas, when doing this as part of a full-body routine, as I jump up I will perform a rowing movement with the handles out in front of me and pull my elbows directly backwards.
Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 max effort jumps resting 2-3 minutes between sets.
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