Category Archives: Exercise Machines
By: Matt Fitzgerald
Exercise machines weren’t created to punish guys who eat too much. That’s what diets are for. But men spend hours, day after day, churning their arms and legs and waiting for the StairMaster or treadmill to make their bellies vanish. The result: They make it about as far as the average rat.
But your machine workout doesn’t have to be a road—or row—to nowhere. “By decreasing the duration and varying the intensity of your exercise sessions, you’ll get better results in less time,” says Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems and coach to Lance Armstrong.
Try our guide to the five most popular exercise machines, with a high-intensity 20-minute workout geared for each. Your goals: Bust your exercise rut, and your gut, in record time.
The Knee Saver
Burn rate: 13 calories per minute
The benefit: Researchers at the University of Mississippi found that elliptical trainers provide the same cardiovascular benefits as treadmill running, without the impact on your joints. So they’re a perfect solution if you’re a runner who wants to stay in race shape without excessive pounding to your ankles, knees and hips.
Do it right: “Instead of holding on to handles, pump your arms as if you were running,” says Kerri O’Brien, C.S.C.S., a trainer in Phoenix. It improves your balance, which will help you whether you’re running 2.6 miles or 26.2.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “alternating interval” fat burning exercise workout from Lance Watson, a coach of Canada’s Olympic triathlon team. By alternating between levels of high resistance and those of high speed, you’ll be able to work at a higher relative intensity for a longer time. Warm up, then increase the machine’s resistance level until you’re striding at 80 percent of your full effort. After 2 minutes, lower the resistance to the level you used during your warmup, but increase your stride rate so that you’re still exercising at 80 percent of your full effort. Continue alternating between a high resistance and a fast stride every 2 minutes for a total of 20 minutes.
The Total-Body Builder
Burn rate: 11 calories per minute
The benefit: “Rowing machines provide the best total-body workout of any cardio machine,” says U.S. Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti. This is because they require equal effort from both your lower and your upper body, which could lead to greater gains in overall cardiovascular fitness.
Do it right: On the back stroke, your knees should be almost completely straight before you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the handle to your sternum. Your back should stay in its naturally arched position during the entire movement. Got it? Now sign up with the Million Meter Club at http://www.conceptII.com. Record your distance online after every rowing session and see how you rank against more than 3,700 other club members. (Stay motivated by finishing your second million in less time.)
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try Teti’s routine. It’s designed to max out your muscles during each interval, while the recovery periods help increase the efficiency of this fat burning exercise routine. Set the rowing machine at a resistance of four. Then perform sets of 10, 15, and 20 power strokes—pulling the handle to your torso as fast and as hard as you can. Separate the power strokes with 60 seconds of easy rowing at about 50 percent of your full effort. Repeat the cycle until you’ve rowed for 20 minutes.
The Health Master
Burn rate: 12 calories per minute
The benefit: Yale researchers found that men with insulin resistance—a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease—who exercised on a stairclimber for 15 minutes 4 days a week improved their sensitivity to insulin by 43 percent in just 6 weeks.
Do it right: The obvious: “Leaning on the handles can cut your caloric expenditure by 20 percent or more,” warns Mike Merk, C.S.C.S., director of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland. So, for a better calorie burn, pump your arms as if you were walking or running briskly. Or you can just turn around. A study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that the retrograde version—facing away from the console—burned more calories than the traditional method.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “escalating intensity” workout from Edmund Burke, Ph.D., author of The Complete Home Fitness Handbook. After you warm up, increase the resistance level by one unit while maintaining a pace of 60 to 80 steps per minute for 2 minutes. Then increase the resistance by one unit every 2 minutes until you reach your 20-minute goal. You’ll gradually work harder as your workout progresses, so you’ll be maxed out at the end of the session—which trains your body to finish hard.
The Mood Lifter
Burn rate: 14 calories per minute
The benefit: Researchers at the University of Northern Arizona found that cycling on a stationary bike for as little as 10 minutes reduced fatigue and negative moods, while improving energy levels. The stationary bike is also the perfect vehicle to prevent chunky guys from hurting themselves as they lose the chunks. That’s because cycling is not a load-bearing exercise, says Kate Heelan, Ph.D., an exercise researcher at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Do it right: Many cyclists develop lower-back pain because of their semifetal posture. “Stand up every 5 minutes and pedal as if you were climbing a hill for 60 seconds,” says Robert Morea, C.S.C.S., a trainer in New York City. “It’ll take the pressure off your lower back, force you to use different muscles and break up the monotony of your workout.”
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this workout from Carmichael. It varies your sprints to challenge your cardiovascular system and muscles in different ways. Following your warmup, start cycling at an intensity that’s about 95 percent of your full effort for 90 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery interval at about 40 percent of your full effort. Then, using the same intensities, perform 60-second and 30-second intervals. After the final 30-second recovery period, cycle at 70 percent of your full effort for 4 minutes, then repeat the entire set of intervals.
The Energy Guzzler
Burn rate: 17 calories per minute
The benefit: A 2001 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise determined that the treadmill burns calories at the highest rate of any exercise machine.
Do it right: If you want to mimic road running, raise the incline of the treadmill to 1 percent before starting your run. Researchers in England found that that’s the degree of treadmill elevation that most closely approximates outdoor running.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “up the incline” interval method from Liz Neporent, coauthor of Fitness for Dummies. It’ll build your leg strength and prepare you for the toughest road courses around, while helping you shed fat fast. Pick a speed that’s about 2 minutes per mile slower than your average outdoor pace. Run at that speed for 2 minutes at an incline of 1 percent. Then raise the incline to 4 percent for another 2 minutes. Continue to raise the elevation of the treadmill by 2 percent every 2 minutes until you reach a 10 percent grade. Then step it back down 1 percent at a time—in 2-minute intervals—until you complete your 20 minutes.
While machines might seem like the foolproof way to exercise, they aren’t always the safest. In fact, sometimes they actually contribute to the injuries you were trying to avoid in the first place. Here are 6 machines you should lift without.
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The Seated Leg Extension
The myth: It’s the safest way to work your quadriceps, or thigh muscles.
The truth: Physiologists at the Mayo Clinic determined that leg extensions place significantly more stress on your knees than squats. Why? Because the resistance is placed near your ankles, which leads to high amounts of torque being applied to your knee joint every time you lower the weight. What’s more, Auburn University scientists found that people who squat long-term have tighter, stronger knee ligaments than those who don’t squat at all.
The alternatives: Free weight squats, split squats, and lunges—performed with perfect form—are all better choices for working your quads and protecting your knees.
Extra tip: Perfect your form with the 100 Best Fitness Tips from Men’s Health.
The Behind-the-Neck Lat Pull-Down
The myth: The best way to perform the lat pulldown is to pull the bar behind your head, down to your upper back
The truth: Unless you have very flexible shoulders, this exercise is difficult to do correctly, and can increase your risk for shoulder impingement syndrome—a painful condition in which the muscles or tendons of your rotator cuff become entrapped in your shoulder joint.
The alternative: Simple—just pull the bar in front of your head, down to your collarbone. You’ll work your back just as hard, but with less risk for injury.
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The Pec Deck
The myth: It’s a super safe and very effective way to work your chest muscles.
The truth: This apparatus, also called the chest fly machine, can overstretch the front of your shoulder and cause the muscles around the rear of your shoulder to stiffen. The result: Doing this movement frequently can lead to shoulder impingement syndrome.
The alternatives: Forget the machine, and stick with exercises such as the pushup, dumbbell bench press and dumbbell incline press; they’re easier on your shoulders and the best way to build your chest overall. In fact, Truman State University researchers found that pectoral muscles are activated for 23 percent less time during the chest fly, compared with the bench press.
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The Seated Hip Abductor Machine
The myth: This machine is the best way to work your out thighs, including your glutes.
The truth: Because you’re seated, it trains a movement that has no functional use. And if done with excessive weight and jerky technique, it can put undue pressure on your spine.
The alternative: Work the same muscles, but while standing. Simply loop a resistance band around both legs, and position the band just below your knees. Now take small steps to your left for 20 feet. Then side-step back to your right for 20 feet. That’s one set. This is much harder than it sounds, but you can do it anywhere, and it’s also a great warmup for any sport.
Extra tip: Get stronger, faster. Read our story about the 8 Perfect Foods for Fitness.
The Seated Rotation Machine
The myth: Twisting on this machine helps melt your love handles.
The truth: It works the muscles under your love handles, but will do little to reduce the fat that covers them. What’s more, because your pelvis doesn’t move as you rotate your upper body, this exercise can put excessive twisting forces on the spine.
The alternative: As long as you don’t expect to shrink your love handles, you can use rotational exercises to work your obliques. But here’s the secret to safety: Before you do any rotational exercises, brace your abs forcefully—as if you’re about to be punched in the gut—and hold them that way as you do the movement. This limits your range of motion and helps to keep you from rotating excessively at your lower spine.
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The Smith Machine
The myth: This machine—which looks like a squat rack with a built-in bar that runs on guides—gives you all the benefits of squats, but none of the risk that comes from holding a heavy barbell across your back. That’s because the bar can easily be secured at any point during the movement.
The truth: Because the bar runs on guides, you can only move straight up and down as you squat—instead of down and back, as you would in a free-weight squat. The result: An unnatural movement that puts extra stress on your knees and lower back. Need another reason to skip the Smith? Canadian researchers found that traditional squats produced almost 50 percent more muscle activity in the quadriceps than squats done on a Smith machine.
The alternative: If you’re not comfortable with barbell squats, simply do the exercise while holding dumbbells at arm’s length next to your sides. You won’t need a spotter, and your body will be free to move through the natural motion of the squat.
Extra tip: For even more great tips like these, sign up for the Men’s Health Exercise of the Week newsletter.