Yes, Sometimes Machines Are Superior To Free Weights
In the midst of the rise of the functional training movement, machine training has become one of the most demonized methods in today’s sports performance and fitness industries. While there are obvious advantages to free weight training from a power, strength and skills development perspective, there are some extremely effective movements and exercises that simply cannot be performed with free weights alone, making the need for specialty machines and equipment clear for a more well rounded approach to fitness and performance alike.
But the biggest limiting factor, other than functional zealotry, that keeps people away from taking full advantage of the novelty effect of specialty machines is accessibility. Specific equipment like the reverse hyper, belt squat, jammer press, back extension and a host of others are rarely found in commercial fitness centers, sports performance facilities or home gyms where a vast majority of people train.
Facing these equipment restrictions in my own sports performance facility along with a vast majority of the gyms my clients and athletes train out of across the globe, we’ve made some simple yet effective modifications for big specialty machine movements to mimic the mechanics and setups all using simple equipment that even a garage gym setup would have. Here are the top 5 simple machine movement modifications to upgrade your specialty training, minus the specialty equipment.
#5 The Reverse Hyperextension Machine
Popularized by Louie Simmons of the legendary Westside Barbell, the Reverse Hyper Machine has become a spine health staple in the worlds of powerlifting, strength sport and athletic performance since its inception into the industry decades ago. While both its unique biomechanical properties and battle tested anecdotal results from the Reverse Hyper have proven extremely effective, its biggest limitation remains extreme equipment limitations to this specialty machine in commercial gym settings, sports performance centers and rehabilitation practices alike. Here’s the simple equipment fix utilizing a bench and a physioball to reap the spine health benefits from this staple movement without use of this specialty machine itself.
Simple Equipment Fix: Physioball Reverse Hyperextension
With the spine health benefits of the reverse hyper too good to ignore, we’ve scaled the look and feel of this machine movement using only a traditional weight bench and a physioball. Place the physioball on the end of the weight bench and position the body over the ball so that the hip joint remains able to move through a close to full range of motion at the top, but more importantly the bottom. If you have taller athletes, you can place weight plates or pads on top of the bench and under the ball to ensure clearance of the feet to the ground and freedom of the hip and spine.
To stabilize the hips even more feel free to add a mini-band just above the knees to cue the glutes to isometrically contract, similar to the belt on the reverse hyper machine. Or to take it to another level all together, place a second band around your ankles to create more tension in the lower body increasing the stability for more lower back and hip isolation.
Grasp the sides of the bench with your hands and hold on tight as you will need solid anchor points in order to reduce the amount of force leak through the upper body and place the emphasis where we want it, on the glutes, erectors and spine itself. Do not skimp on the setup, as gaining optimal positions before the movement starts is pivotal, especially when making specialty modifications.
Now, start the feet in a dorsiflexed toes up towards shin position with toes contacting the head of the bench. Your head should be down and neck flexed in this position while the thoracic and lumbar spine also starting in flexion. Dynamically contract up leading with your glutes and finishing off the “hyperextension” moment with the lower back moving into slight extension. As this happens, chest, head and neck will raise simultaneously creating tension and recruitment across the entire posterior chain.
Pulsate this movement up and down dynamically controlling the concentric raising portion of the exercise while controlling and accentuating the eccentric under tension on the way back down. Utilize as close to a full range of motion as you can, as the power of pain-free training and resilience is found where at the bottom aspects of the movement where the hips and spine are challenged the most.
This movement should be trained in hypertrophy or metabolic stress based schemes with rep ranges between 15-50 repetitions. More volume and frequency can be tolerated here as compared to compound loaded movements due to the isolated position of the hips and back, and also the spine sparing properties of the arcing fulcrum point. Start with 2-3 days per week in your warm up, or as a finisher.
#4 The Jammer Press Machine
For developing explosive full body power without the Olympic lifts, the Hammer Strength Jammer Machine and many more recent derivatives have thrived in the sports performance industry due to it’s simplicity and effectiveness for producing force. But unless you have access to a stand-alone ground based jammer machine, or have specialty squat racks built out with the capability of adding expensive jammer arms to the columns, chances are you have not experienced this specialty exercise due to specific machine or equipment constraints in your facility. We have solved this equipment limitation using a suspension trainer and barbell against a squat rack to mimic the mechanics of the jammer for simple and highly accessible jammer exercise training.
Simple Equipment Fix: Suspension Trainer Jammer Press
This novel setup will not only blow your mind in its simplicity, but also it’s effectiveness. The tools that you will need here are a traditional barbell, a suspension trainer or rings, and a high enough anchor point (something like a pull up bar) to attach the suspension trainer to. Note that you should have ALL of these items in whatever type of gym you are training at.
Shorten the suspension trainer straps so they are approximately chest height when hanging down vertically to the ground. This will ensure that we are setting up the press from an ideal height around chest level. Now, slip the barbell through each side of the suspension trainer so it’s fully supporting the barbell, and positioned equidistant from the midline of the barbell for symmetrical load distribution. If you have a power rack, use it to help support the bottom of this setup. Note that the rack is helpful but not mandatory.
Position the lower body in a split stance with one foot in front of the other and take a shoulder width grip on the barbell with spine in a neutral position. Powerfully press the bar explosively, and return it back to the starting position. You’ll quickly notice the natural arc that the suspended barbell creates, altering the strength curve while also working into intermediary pressing positions that are extremely shoulder friendly.
A few additions can be made to the suspension trainer jammer press to make it even better including using banded accommodating resistance, along with initiating the movement with a powerful step forward. Like any other movement, add load as necessary to challenge the pattern while keeping in mind this is best used as an explosive power drill to potentiate the nervous system for peak performance.
The suspension trainer jammer press provides an explosive joint friendly spark to pressing based days, and has been a staple primer drill that is programmed after the 6-phase dynamic warm upand before a big loaded key performance indicator of the training day. Keeping rep ranges in the power and strength schemes, approximately 1-6 repetitions is where we’ve found the best success.
#3 The Prowler Sled
The Prowler Sled is one of the simplest and most downright devastating conditioning tools on the planet. But as simple as pushing or pulling a sled with weights stacked on it may seem, environmental and equipment restrictions keep many general fitness consumers and athletes alike from being able to benefit from this versatile tool. Whether your gym is equipped with sticky rubber gym flooring that offers too much friction to push a sled, the cement parking lot where the sleds are pushed is covered in snow during the winter, or you simply don’t have a sled, we’ve got the simple machine-less modification for sled dragging using a treadmill, band and weight belt that will blow your mind.
Simple Equipment Fix: Band Loaded Incline Treadmill Walk
As simple as it may seem, carrying, dragging or pulling heavy shit around is one of the most effective methods for not only building a badass posterior chain, but also cleaning up functional weak links while building your conditioning and cardiovascular abilities in the process. But restrictions due to equipment, setup, weather and more keep many people from benefiting from this catchall exercise.
In the winter months in Wisconsin where temperatures reach -30F (that’s cold as hell for you on the Celsius metric) and size and flooring restrictions in my facility, we rigged the treadmill to mimic a loaded sled drag to gain the posterior chain benefits, sky rocket the heart rate and actually progress something as simple as walking with a goal in mind.
Using a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell as the anchor point (heavy enough to have NO doubt that it will shift when you are walking), a weight bench or a box to elevate up the weight, and a circular resistance band around the waist, we can create an extremely effective modification for traditional sled dragging. This is so easy and effective that I make it a priority to set this up when on the road training in hotel gyms, commercial fitness centers and beyond.
The box and weight serving as the anchor point should be close enough to the end of the treadmill that you don’t have crazy band tension on your system, but far enough away to keep it safe and away from ever contacting the moving belt, which is a big no-no. Looping the band around the handle or a kettlebell or dumbbell and then placing it between you and a weight belt creates a great challenge to the gait pattern. After experimenting with band thicknesses and positions, we recommend starting with a light band like our blue JRx bands, and then progressing from there. Note that a little band tension when combined with inclined angles on the treadmill goes a long way.
This exact setup is used multiple times per week in different positions such as forward walking, backwards walking, and even side walking off of a belt is great. Also challenge your static shoulder positioning by holding the band in your hands and walking against it more similar to a drag or a pull on the sled. The ultimate loaded walking combines the band off belt setup, a weight vest and weights in the hands for the loaded walking trifecta. Try this out the next time you’re restricted by equipment, weather, or want to make your cardio more effective.
#2 The 45-Degree Back Extension Machine
Direct lower back training has seen its rise and fall in recent years, but one standard piece of equipment that is an absolute mainstay in commercial fitness centers to hotel gyms and beyond is the 45-Degree Back Extension Machine or the Hyperextension Machine as it is commonly referred to. From directly targeting the erectors of the lower back while also hammering the glutes, hamstrings and even calves together to fire and be trained as a functional unit, nothing beats this machine. But the only problem remains is the availability of the old Roman chair in sports performance centers, CrossFit boxes, home gyms and beyond. Here’s the simple setup using just a squat rack, bar and band that will blow your mind.
Simple Equipment Fix: Banded Back Extension Over Squat Rack
One of the machines that is quickly dismissed by many in the functional training community is the 45-degree back extension due to its unique setup, mechanics and general use. But for optimally training the glutes, hamstrings and erectors while adding resilience to the entire lumbo-pelvic unit, nothing beats this machine. But from a size, shape and footprint standpoint, the only types of facilities that seem to have these are commercial fitness centers.
With the popularization of the box-based fitness model the use of glute ham raises (GHR) have found their way into many different types of facilities. But for anyone who has tried to do back extensions on the GHR, it works, but due to the mechanics of the setup and movement, it is far from optimal. We now choose to setup over a barbell in the squat rack and utilize a band to resist back extensions that are an upgrade from the GHR, or for many, not doing any machine based direct back work whatsoever.
To get setup for the banded back extension over the squat rack, you will need a heavy weight such as a dumbbell or kettlebell, a circular resistance band, and a barbell. The barbell should be positioned 2-3 inches below hip height in order to ideally hinge over the bar at the hips while keeping the spine in as close to a neutral position as possible. For those of you with sensitive hips, a bar pad is a cheap and easy addition that will be a game changer for not getting chewed up on the bar.
Loop the band around the handle of the weight that is positioned 5-6 feet in front of the rack. Note that you will be facing the weight and band to resist into more and more extension as the band gets stretch. Lastly, the band is placed around your neck for a longer moment arm of pull, or you can simply put it around your shoulders as an easy modification.
Start hinged over the rack with head and neck flexed (as we want to stay out of extension of the lumbar spine here) and feet strong and rooted into the ground. Drive up against the band leading with the glutes and cue your tailbone to tuck under with a posterior pelvic tilt. Flex the top of the rep in, accentuate an eccentric lowering moment through a full range of motion and you’ll be golden on this simple machine-less setup.
Since a limiting factor to this modified machine movement is the resistance of the band, so this setup and exercise modification works best trained with extended rep schemes of 10-40 reps, or more burn out sets to tap into hypertrophy or metabolic stress of the glutes, hamstrings and erectors. Keep constant tension, and these will elicit a nice targeted training effect to level up your direct low back training.
#1 The Belt Squat Machine
If you’ve battled through lower back injuries, you know how hard traditional barbell squatting can be on the spine, especially when rebuilding after injuries. While axial loading down through the spine is by no means inherently dangerous, like anything else, too much is rarely a good thing. But if you don’t have access to beautiful machines like the Matt Wenning Belt Squat to deload your spine while training the squat more frequently, you’ll most likely be forced back to the barbell to continue to progress your muscle, strength or power gains. But before you force feed another barbell squat day, check out this simple landmine belt squat machine-less modification using only weight benches, a landmine barbell and a dip belt.
Simple Equipment Fix: Barbell Landmine Belt Squat
Now this machine-less setup may take some time to fine tune, but if you can get it right it will provide a closely mirroring training effect to the likes of the belt squat machine. Utilizing two benches (or boxes), a barbell positioned on its end in a landmine setup, and a dip belt attached to the bar and around your waist, you’ll be ready to squat minus more compression loads coming down through the spine.
Ensure that the benches are far away from one another that the barbell with weight plates fits in between while also allowing the feet to be ideally positioned for the person’s unique foot position and squat stance. Feet should be placed in alignment with the collar of the barbell, and the weight belt hooked securely bumping up next to the end of the barbell collar, and if you want to be extra creative, a clip placed on the collar of the barbell itself.
In order to get into a safe and effective position when loads get heavier, a partner assist is recommended in order to get both feet set in the squat stance while also deloading the bar and starting the squat from a top down approach. Have your partner do a landmine deadlift to elevate the barbell while you setup the feet and brace down to squat. Complete all of your reps utilizing a countering hand position pushing out as the squat is controlled into an eccentric lowering, and driving back up with the legs while the hands come back to midline. At the end of each set, have your partner assist the lowering of the bar to maintain proper mechanics and never get caught under the bar or between the benches.
Due to load restrictions on this landmine belt squat setup, this movement is best trained at higher set and rep schemes in the upper strength and hypertrophy ranges. Never jeopardize your setup or positions for more load on the bar, as safety of you and your training partner is always the top concern and focus.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL and MLB All-Star performers, and professionals from 11 different sports. He has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional physique athletes.
His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully implemented by over 25,000 athletes worldwide including his best selling training system Functional Power Training, which has revolutionized the way coaches and athletes develop strength, muscle and performance pain-free. Dr. Rusin’s work has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus.