Arnold Schwarzenegger has logged more miles in the gym than most people would in three lifetimes, but he’s still not done. Even at 72 years old, the seven-time Mr. Olympia and action movie icon is still working hard in the weight room.
One thing has changed, however, as Schwarzenegger revealed in his Men’s Health cover profile: He no longer lifts using free weights. After a surgery for a torn labrum in 2012—he’s also had procedures on his hip, knee, and had a pulmonic heart valve replaced in 2018—Schwarzenegger switched to a machines-only regimen.
Why would a man so steeped in gym lore that he has a commonly performed lift named after him ditch the moves that helped to build up his body? Easy: To limit the wear and tear on his frame in his older years. Whether or not you have injuries of your own, you’d be wise to give machines a try yourself.
Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. if a fan of weight machines—if they’re used the right way. “Training with machines has strong benefit in a training program, as long as you don’t let the machine do all the work for you,” he advises. “The narrative is that machines are “easier to learn” than free weight motions, but if you rely on them too much, you wind up merely skipping things you should learn and failing to create proper core tension in your movements.”
Just know what you’re working to accomplish when you sit down in one of the weight room rigs. “Machines are generally best used strictly for general strength and hypertrophy work,” Samuel says. “You’re often isolating a muscle group (or a few) with the set track of the machine, making it a perfect chance to drive blood to that group. So keep your reps high, doing at least 8 reps per set; there’s no value in trying to build power or absolute strength on a machine by training low reps.”
With that guidance in mind, check out these four standout weight machines when you hit the gym so you can lift like Arnold.
Eb says: If you can’t do pullups, this is a strong replacement as a lat builder, but it’s not a substitute: Your core generally isn’t as active on lat pulldowns. Avoid rocking backwards from the lower back to start the pulldown motion.
It’s easy to create this action to get it started if you’re going too heavy, but it takes away from the pulldown and also shifts the emphasis of the movement from vertical pulling to horizontal.
Eb says: The cable row machine should be a part of any standard hypertrophy back routine because it offers something free weight row variations do not: A chance to completely remove stress from the lower back. The direction of force is no longer perpendicular to the ground (and thus subject to gravitational force challenges), but it’s parallel to the ground.
So even if your form is off slightly, your lower back never endures the brunt of the force. This doesn’t mean you should get sloppy with cable rows; continue to operate with a tight core and shoulder blades.
Eb says: The machine leg curl is rare in that it’s an accessible knee-dominant hamstring movement. Most hamstring moves are hip-dominant, but it’s worthwhile, especially if you cycle, to learn to create force from your hamstring with the knee joint as the driver.
Just focus on lowering the weight slowly as you return it to the stack and avoid bucking at the hips to create a starting force.
Chest Fly Machine
Eb says: For anyone chasing inner chest development, chest fly machines are a great option, and an improvement over standard dumbbell flies. The point of peak contraction on a dumbbell fly occurs a few degrees before the dumbbells actually get close to touching, when the arms are at their apex, so you may miss an opportunity to get a truly aggressive chest squeeze.
By shifting the direction of the force, chest fly machines allow the pecs to drive your hands together. Just make sure to continue to drive your shoulder blades into the back of any chest fly machine you’re on; that’ll protect your shoulder and also insure that your pec (and not a general shifting forwards of the entire shoulder complex) generates the final squeeze.