As a fitness coach, I’m often asked whether training with machines is enough to add a significant amount of muscle or if muscle growth only happens with dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell training.
So, can you build muscle using machines? Yes, machines can lead to significant muscle growth. Research shows that you can build just as much muscle using machines as you can training with free weights. However, it’s important to note that free weights offer unique benefits, which is why we recommend training with both free weights and machines.
In this article, we will discuss the benefits of training with machines, the limitations of machine-only training, and what are the best machine exercises to build muscle.
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Building Muscle With Machines: What the Science Says
To understand whether machine training can build a significant amount of muscle and to decide if it’s worth implementing, it’s important to reference findings from peer-reviewed research.
Here’s what the science has to say:
Machines And Free Weights Build The Same Amount of Muscle In Experienced Lifters
According to this study, machines and free weights build the same amount of muscle tissue in subjects who trained for eight weeks.
In this study, subjects performed either free weight exercises with barbells and dumbbells, or machine exercises with Smith machines, hammer strength machines, and standard gym machines.
Each group trained 2-3 times a week and performed 3-4 sets of 4-10 repetitions for each exercise.
So it appears that when the amount of work is equated between machine and free weight training, it is possible to build the exact same amount of muscle.
Training With Free Weights Increases Testosterone In Males More Than Machine Training
Researchers in the same study above also found that males who trained with free weights had significantly higher levels of testosterone than males who trained with machines. However for women, there was no significant difference in testosterone levels with free weight vs machine training.
Why is this important?
Low testosterone levels in men is associated with fragility, muscle loss, increased body fat (due to muscle loss), and decreased physical performance.
If you’re someone who has average testosterone levels then this may not be a concern; however, if you’re a male with naturally low testosterone levels, then you may want to avoid machine-only training and stick to free weights.
Greater Strength Output With Free Weights Than Machine Training
There is also research to suggest that training with free weights results in greater force output (strength) than training with machines.
This study comparing the squat and bench press using a barbell versus the smith machine found that both men and women had greater strength outputs during the free weight movement pattern using the barbell.
It appears that free weight exercises may lead to greater gains in strength than machine exercises when comparing similar movement patterns.
Free Weights May Be More Enjoyable Despite Being More Challenging
Another study found that subjects who trained with free weights found their workouts to be a more challenging training experience but also a more positive experience than only training with machines.
This could be related to the feeling of accomplishment when learning a complex movement or refining a skill.
The positive emotions associated with free weight training are important because exercisers may feel more motivated to workout when using free weights than they would if they were only doing machine training.
Machines Build Muscle For Beginners Just As Much As Free Weights
Researchers found that machines build just as much muscle as free weights in those who are new to strength training, which supports the initial study stating muscle growth was the same between machine and free weight groups in those with more weight training experience.
This is important because it can help beginners fast track their muscle growth if they have issues with movement coordination or cannot perform a free weight alternative of a movement properly in the beginning.
While training for muscle growth, it is important to train hard, and machines may allow some less skilled lifters a chance to train hard without having to worry about being as coordinated as they would need to be with free weights.
Free Weights May Build More Leg Muscle For Older Populations Than Machines
In this study, researchers found that free weights offer a greater muscle building benefit than machine training in older populations.
This could be due to the fact that free weights train more muscles in a single rep than machine training. With free weight training, you will work main muscle groups and also stabilizing muscle groups to hold you in a particular position. With machine training, stabilizing muscle aren’t required because the machine itself holds you in position.
The results could also be related to increases in testosterone in males with free weight training, which may also support greater muscle growth.
Related Article: Fastest Ways to Build Muscle
Benefits of Training With Machines
There are four main benefits to using machines for muscle growth:
1. Machines Are Beginner Friendly
Machines are easier for beginners to build muscle safely and effectively. Machines give beginners the ability to train their muscles without form being as much of an issue as it would be with free weights.
Bad form can still happen on machines (trust me, it does), but I find that machines have fewer form issues than free weight movement because the machine typically sets you up in the right position, whereas with free weights, positioning is entirely up to you.
For example, a machine row training the back will generally be easier for a beginner to perform properly (and target the back muscles) than a bent over barbell row.
2. Easier to Target a Muscle
Machines allow you to train a consistent movement pattern or angle throughout the entire work set, which is key when trying to train a muscle to stimulate growth.
For example, when training the back using a machine, the machine often places you in a position where your chest is on a support, not allowing you to lean back which can help isolate the lats more.
While you can do this with free weights, it takes more skill, body awareness, and discipline to do so.
All level lifters can use machines in their training to isolate a muscle, especially if they have issues targeting a muscle with free weights.
3. Can Train a Muscle Close to Failure with Safety
Training a muscle to near failure is important for maximal muscle growth because it gives your body a reason to have to adapt. However, as you do this, you need to ensure you are still training with proper form to avoid injury.
Machines are typically a better option to train a muscle to near failure as it is harder to change your body position or shift emphasis to other muscle groups to sneak out a few more reps.
For example, if you wanted to isolate the quadriceps and train them to failure, a hack squat is a great option as it’s harder for your hips and lower back to help you as you get more fatigued, keeping the emphasis on the quads.
With a barbell back squat, you may find you start to lean forward more as you get tired, which would stress the lower back and hips more as they try to kick in and help, and it would take the focus off of your quadriceps.
4. Can Train Around Injuries More Easily
If you are injured, machines may be extremely useful as they could help you train around that injury, rather than having to stop training entirely until the injury heals.
For example, let’s say you break your ankle and want to train your lower body. Standing, squating, and doing lunges may not be ideal with a broken ankle, however you could use machine leg extensions and leg curls to train the quads and hamstrings while you are recovering without adding detrimental stress to the recovering injury.
This is also a great way to train other muscle groups, which can help to promote growth in the injured muscles (called the “cross education effect”).
For example, if your left leg is injured, but you continue to train the right leg using machines, you could still see strength and muscle growth in BOTH legs.
Related Article: Best Cardio Machines for Weight Loss
Drawbacks of Training With Machines
Although there are multiple benefits to training with machines, there are also some drawbacks to only training with machines.
1. Not Ideal for Maximal Strength Training
Machines can certainly increase basic strength, however, if you are looking to maximize your strength levels, then you may want to consider incorporating free weights into your workout.
When looking to build a stronger squat, deadlift, bench press, or other competitive lift, it’s important to work with free weights to establish greater movement coordination and improve the stability of surrounding muscles.
2. Movements May Not Mimic Real Work Needs
Machines are great for isolating a muscle group to build muscle, but it may not be the most appropriate way to train if you are looking to use this muscle in everyday life.
Machine training is not as transferable because machines lock you into a position that you likely won’t replicate in real-life situations.
If you’re only training with machines then this could be an issue; however, if you’re training with both machines and free weights then you will get the best of both worlds with muscle growth and movement pattern coordination.
3. Doesn’t Train Supportive Muscle Groups as Well As Free Weights
Machines are great for isolating a single muscle group, however in doing so, they lack the ability to train as many muscle groups at once, including stabilizing muscle groups.
This can be an issue if you are limited on time in the gym, want to develop total body coordination, and are concerned with developing smaller, supporting muscles groups as well.
This could also potentially increase your risk of injury because your stabilizing muscle may be too weak to support you in other movements (i.e. climbing stairs, hiking, jumping, running)
What Are the Best Machines for Building Muscle?
Some machines are far better than others when it comes to muscle growth. Below are some of the best machines that you can use to build muscle, broken down into upper body and lower body machines.
Best Upper Body Machines for Building Muscle
Below are 10 of the best upper body machines for building muscle.
Note: only some of these machine exercises can be found in the Fitbod app or they are called something slightly different.
The lat pulldown machine is a back exercise that can be performed with a variety of attachments. Based on the attachment you use, you can train various angles and widths to target parts of your upper back. This machine is similar to the cable lat pulldown, which targets the same muscles.
Assisted Pull Up Machine
The assisted pull up machine is a great way to build your lats. This machine uses weight to counterbalance your own body weight, helping individuals who cannot do a lot of strict pull ups with good form. This is a great exercise for all levels and is a staple for many lifters looking to build lat size and strength.
The machine row is a back exercise that trains the back at a different angle (horizontal pulling) than the lat pulldown or assisted pull-up machine (vertical pulling). The machine row can be done with a weight stack, however, can also be done with a plate-loaded machine or cable system. Machine rows may also have a variety of grip handles and angles at which you can train the back.
The Smith machine is a versatile piece of equipment that is similar to the barbell, however, it doesn’t require you to stabilize or control the bar path since the bar is locked into place using tracks. This allows you to move the bar up and down without having to worry about forward or backward movement.
This is a great way to train the upper body to failure and can be great for beginners and advanced lifters looking to isolate their muscles better.
The most common and effective Smith machine exercises for the upper body are:
- Smith Machine Bench Press (chest)
- Smith Machine Incline Bench Press (chest)
- Smith Machine Bent Over Row (back)
- Smith Machine Shoulder Press (shoulders)
- Smith Machine Upright Row (shoulders)
Machine Chest Press
The machine chest press is a great way to isolate the chest muscles. This machine typically allows you to train the chest at various angles and with a variety of grips (overhead, narrow grip, neutral grip). By changing the angles and grip position, you can place more emphasis on the chest and take more pressure off the shoulders.
Machine Chest and Rear Delt Fly
This machine has the capacity to do both chest flys and rear delt flys (also called reverse flys). This is a good machine as it does not allow you to change the arcing motion of the movement, which sometimes is a major technique issue with free weight variations of the chest and rear delt flys.
Assisted Dip Machine
The assisted dip machine is the same as the assisted pull up machine. To convert the machine from pullups to assisted dips, you usually need to flip a handle and then you are all set. This is great for lifters who struggle to move their own body weight while doing a dip or those who struggle to maintain control and proper form.
Machine Preacher Curl
Machine preacher curls target the biceps, and are a great bicep isolation exercise for all levels. Unlike free weight bicep curls, the machine preacher curl forces lifters to only use their biceps to lift the weights, and minimizes any arm swinging or shoulder involvement that would “cheat” the movement.
Machine Overhead Press
The machine overhead press is a shoulder exercise that places the individual in a seated position and gives them a few different grip positions to choose from. This machine is ideal because you do not need to worry about controlling the bar path, so it’s great for lifters who may struggle placing free weights overhead.
Adjustable Cable System
An adjustable cable system is a versatile piece of gym equipment, and allows you to train almost any movement by moving around the cable pulleys and changing out handle attachments.
Here are some of the most popular cable system exercises for the upper body, most of which are found in the Fitbod app.
- Cable Chest Press (chest)
- Cable Crossover Fly (chest)
- Cable Bicep Curl (biceps)
- Cable Face Pull (shoulders)
- Cable Lateral Raise (shoulders)
- Cable Rear Delt Fly (shoulders)
- Cable Overhead Triceps Extension (triceps)
- Cable Row (back)
- Cable Lat Pulldown (back)
Best Lower Body Machines for Building Muscle
Below are eight of the best lower body machines for building muscle.
Note: only some of these machine exercises can be found in the Fitbod app or they are called something slightly different.
The Smith machine (as discussed above) is also great for lower body training. It allows you to isolate a movement pattern more directly to target the muscles you are after without having to worry about the path of the bar.
The most popular lower body exercises on the Smith machine are:
- Smith Machine Squats (quadriceps and glutes)
- Smith Machine Romanian Deadlifts (hamstrings and glutes)
- Smith Machine Split Squats (quadriceps and glutes
- Smith Machine Hip Thrusts (glutes)
- Smith Machine Bulgarian Split Squats (quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes)
The leg press targets the quadriceps and glutes, and is a good exercise to add more leg training while minimizing loading to the lower back.
You can use this machine to target the quads by having your feet lower on the platform and lowering the sled as far as you can go (deep knee bending) without lifting your heels.
If you want to emphasize your hips (glutes and hamstrings), place your feet higher on the platform and lower the sled as low as you can go while still keeping your lower back flat.
The hack squat targets the quadriceps, as it does not allow you to push your hips back as you squat, forcing more knee bending (flexion) and in turn adding more muscular tension to the quads to stand up.
This is good to help lifters use their quads in a squat rather than shifting backwards, and to train the quadriceps more directly without adding extra work to the lower back.
Leg Extension Machine
The leg extension machine targets the quadriceps. This machine is done from a seated position, and has you bend and straighten your quads. This machine is great for those who are working through an injury or for those who want to isolate their quads for bigger legs.
Seated Hamstring Curl Machine
The seated hamstring curl machine is one of the two main hamstring isolation machine exercises in most gyms. The seated hamstring curl machine targets the hamstrings, primarily the lower aspect of the hamstring (just above where it attaches to the back of the knee).
Lying Hamstring Curl Machine
The lying hamstring curl machine is the other hamstring isolation machine that trains the hamstrings in similar areas to the seated hamstring curl machine.
Some people feel their hamstrings working more intensely with this version of the hamstring curl, whereas others prefer the seated version; I suggest trying both and then deciding which is your favorite.
Machine Hip Thrust
Some gyms will have a machine hip thrust that can be plate loaded for more resistance. This is a glute focused exercise that allows you to easily set yourself up and add weight to the bar, instead of having to load a barbell, find a bench, and get yourself into a tricky start position.
Machine Calf Raise
Machine calf raises come in a few different styles. The first is a seated machine calf raise, which trains one of the calf muscles (the calf muscle is made up of actually two smaller muscles). There is also a standing calf raise machine, which when done with straight legs, trains the other calf muscle.
Are Machines Better Than Free Weights for Building Muscle?
No, both machines and free weights can build muscle, however, each offers unique advantages and disadvantages.
Machines are great for isolating a muscle group and training hard to failure, whereas free weights are great for building strength and training stabilizing muscles (as well as the primary muscle you are targeting).
To get the best of both worlds, I recommend that you perform both free weight and machine exercises.
When Should You Use Machines Instead of Free Weights?
You should use machines over free weights when you’re trying to isolate a muscle, when you’re training to failure, or when you’re injured.
This is not to say that you should never use free weights in these instances, but rather that machines will make it easier to perform moments with proper form.
Sometimes machines may not be the best option, such as when you are trying to build max strength or when you need to train a specific movement for your sport. In this case a free weight exercise may be better as it trains more muscles (supporting muscles as well as the primary muscle group) and requires more movement coordination compared to machines.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Do Machines or Free Weights Build Muscle Faster?
Both machines and free weights build muscle, with research concluding that for most people the rate of muscle growth is not significantly different between machines vs free weight training groups.
What Machines Help Build Muscle?
All machines have value if used correctly, and can be used in a program to promote muscle growth. When looking to use machines in a program, it’s important to understand which muscle groups are being targeted so you can work all muscle groups for optimal growth.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.