Choose your machines wisely at the gym

How do you choose between different kinds of gym equipment? A recent study might provide some answers.

In the gym, there are many options available to work out with: free weights, cables, plate-loaded and pin-loaded machines for strength training — plus a vast array of cardiovascular equipment. It can sometimes be hard to know which equipment is best for you and your fitness goals.

Recent research looked at the benefits of using either selectorised gym equipment or cable resistance machines for training specific muscle groups.

Fifteen participants performed workouts on a range of cable and selectorised machines, with the order randomised by researchers. Participants would complete the same exercise twice, once using a selectorised machine and another time using a cable machine.

The exercises being measured were the biceps curl, the chest press and the overhead press.

The researchers were looking for the effects that certain exercises had on six muscle groups: pectoralis major (the main chest muscle), anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), biceps brachii, triceps brachii (both parts of the arm), rectus abdominis and external obliques (both part of the core).

The activity levels of each of these exercises were measured using electromyography, which records electrical data produced by muscles.

What the researchers found was that, depending on the type of equipment used, different secondary muscles would be activated during a given exercise. So, for example, doing cable biceps curls would obviously work the biceps but also activate the chest and front deltoid more than performing biceps curls with a selectorised machine.

Similarly, a cable chest press activated the biceps, deltoid and external obliques. This likely has to do with the greater range of motion provided by cable equipment.

Selectorised machines provided different angles for certain exercises. The selectorised biceps curl, for example, had greater starting and ending angles for the shoulder and elbow joints. This might mean that a trainee would be better able to use time-under-tension training and a slow negative rep scheme.

Additionally, it might mean that selectorised equipment is better for isolating muscle groups than cables.

Further research needs to be completed in light of this current study, which has been published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

The study concludes that the “utilisation patterns of selected muscles, joint angles and ranges of motion can be varied because of machine application even when similar exercises are used”. That is: different types of machines can affect your training in different ways.

This means that personal trainers, coaches and everyday exercisers should take this into account when designing workout programs. Some people — for example injured clients needing rehabilitation — might be better suited to one type of machine training than the other.

So, next time you’re in the gym, think about not just your exercise selection but also your equipment selection.

Signorile, JF et al (2017.) ‘Differences in muscle activation and kinematics between cable-based and selectorized weight training.’
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. February 2017. Volume 31: Issue 2 – p 313–322. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001493


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