Legs are most men's least favorite muscle group at the gym. So when the dreaded legs day comes around, many guys take the easy way out and just use machines to do their legwork for them. That's not a good idea, because leg machines tend not to mimic the functional way you use your legs. The strength you develop on these machines does not transfer to usable environments—whether it's athletic performance or just everyday living.
For one thing, many leg machines work on a single joint, whereas leg tasks in life and in sports require multi-joint efforts. The more strength that you can develop in an unstable, machine-free environment, the more stable all of your joints will be and the more strength and power you can have in stable environments. Also, the risk of machines is precisely what makes them so tempting, because they will allow you to isolate and build strength in certain muscle groups (think, for example, of the hamstring curl machine)—but you should think of your legs as chains of muscle. Overdeveloping one muscle leads to imbalances in the full chain.
When exercising legs you want to do full chain movements that work all of the connected leg muscles—such as full body squats or straight leg deadlifts. Unless you are a bodybuilder who spends hours in the gym, or you are rehabbing your imbalances, you do not need to isolate muscle groups in your legs.
Solving the Machine Problem
You love the machines, but it's time to branch out. Here are a few of the worst machine culprits, and the functional exercises with which you should replace them.
Machine: Hamstring curl machine
Problem: Most of my clients cannot touch their toes. Why? Because their hamstrings are too tight. Your hamstrings are in a flexed position all day at work while you sit at your desk. Is there really a reason to flex them even more on a hamstring curl machine? Not only does using this machine make your hamstrings tighter, but it will eventually cause your pelvis to rotate improperly. And that will lead to chronic back pain. Not good.
Solution: Instead, try Barbell Russian dead lifts. Not only will this exercise strengthen your hamstrings, but it will also lengthen them at the same time.
Machine: Hip abductors/adductor machine (or as I like to call these exercises, Housewives)
Problem: This hip-opening and closing machine has got to be my least favorite machine in the gym. For one thing, in addition to tight hamstrings, a majority of my clients also have extremely tight hip flexors and IT Bands (IT stands for Iliotibial Band—the group of muscle fascia that runs on the outside of your quad). This puts people at risk for injury. And this machine exacerbates that problem. While using the machine you are seated, pressing in and pulling out, and causing your hip flexors and IT bands to become even tighter. All the while, you are only using one joint to move your legs. This is what I mean by a non-functional exercise—think of a time when you have ever been seated and needed to move large amounts of weight. I'm guessing it isn't often, if ever.
Solution: Functional exercises again are key. For instance, try multi-directional lunges. Here you engage all of your leg muscles, while still working the abductors and adductors. Also, do side-to-side steps over a flat bench. For added benefit, use a jumping motion over the bench to help train your stabilizer muscles as well.
Machine: Leg press machine
Problem: While this is not a machine that I would consider "bad" (whereas the first two I would never have my clients use), it still only works along a stable joint movement. You should work to improve your independent balance and strength when working out—and this machine won't get you there.
Solution: To help build your overall leg strength, squats are the single most effective exercise. With squats, you use every joint in your leg to help your body push the weight. But the leg press can play a role, if it's part of a larger strategy and appropriately used. So, you may want to do functional exercises to failure, and then use the leg press to further exhaust your legs. The greatest functional leg exercise is barbell squats. If the bar is too much, then you can replace it with dumbbells. Other great functional leg exercises include drop-down lunges and walking lunges.
The next time it's a legs day, try something new. The whole point of working out is to increase your strength, flexibility and coordination, and you simply cannot get all of that from machines. As a trainer, my goal is always to make you functionally fit and strong. Using free-standing movements will allow your body to use all of its joints and muscle groups and will help you to have a stronger, more fit and flexible body overall.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a new series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.