One of the main reasons we go to the gym and don’t just work out at home is that the gym has better stuff. Let’s be honest, you’re not about to buy a $1,900 Pro Maxima Performance Plus Unilateral Decline Chest Press and stick it in your living room. No, you’re going to pay a gym $50 a month to use the fun toys most people tend to use incorrectly.

But not all gym machines are created equal. Some are great tools that can be incorporated into a smart program, while others are simply a way for fitness companies to make money by dumbing down proper training techniques.

When used effectively, some machines will help you maximize your workouts and give you benefits you could not otherwise get using just free weights. When used ineffectively, they can derail you from proper training, and keep you trapped in a perpetual plateau of mediocrity.

Here are the top five machines to use in the gym and how to use them.

5. Calf Machines (Seated and Standing)

Calves are notoriously difficult to train. They are mostly slow twitch fibers, which means they require tons of training volume in order to grow. It can be difficult to train them with free weights, as the muscles of the calf work in such a limited range of motion. For this reason, isolation work is required if you want to turn your calves into bulls.

Standing calf raises train your gastrocnemius, which is the meaty, heart-shaped part of the calf. Using a standing calf raise machine is a good way to train your calves symmetrically, while also controlling the load in which you train them by simply adjusting a pin.

How to Use a Standing Calf Raise Machine

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To perform standing calf raises on a machine, place your shoulders beneath the pads.

With your toes facing forward, balance on the balls of your feet, push up, and point your toes down to unlock the machine.

Raise your ankles as high as possible before controlling the weight down and stretching your ankles back out.

Briefly pause at the top and bottom of the motion, as too much bouncing will take the tension out of the muscle and put it in the Achille’s tendon.

The seated calf raise works much the same way, except, well, you’re seated. However, doing this will train a different part of the calf, the soleus, which runs underneath the gastrocnemius.

All the same rules apply: don’t bounce, keep reps relatively high and choose your weights appropriately. Don’t cheat on the range of motion —more range means more gains.

4. Pec Dec / Reverse Pec Dec

People will often perform exercises like dumbbell flyes or rear delt flyes to train the chest or rear delts respectively. However, there is a mechanical disadvantage to doing this. If you think about a dumbbell fly, the part at the top is significantly harder than the part at the bottom.

This is because as the weight moves laterally away from the body, it creates more tension on the muscle. This is not ideal since it will disproportionally train the muscle and could create weak points.

A way to fix that is to use a machine that uses constant tension all the way through the movement, which is exactly what the pec dec/ reverse pec dec does.

How to Use a Pec Deck Machine

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To use this machine, position the handles on either side of you (chest training) or directly in front of you (rear delts training).

Grab the handles, making sure that they are at or just below shoulder height, then squeeze the attachments together or apart until you cannot add any more tension to the muscle.

Gently bring the weight back to your starting position before repeating.

3. Ab Crunch Machine

Abs are tricky because they are tough to load, i.e. make harder. You can only add so many reps or sets to an ab exercise before it gets too easy. For this reason, exercises that target the abs, yet can also increase the weight load, are fantastic; the best machine for this is the ab crunch machine.

To properly use an ab crunch machine:

Sit down on the machine and place your feet under the pads and grab the handles.

Arms should be bent to about 90 degrees as you crunch.

To initiate the crunch, imagine touching your elbows to your knees, bringing your top and lower halves together at the same rate.

Squeeze your abs and use them to propel the weight.

2. Leg Press Machine

Please note that the bulk of your leg training should be squat and deadlift variations. However, after you are done with those, the leg press is a fantastic tool to incorporate into your leg training, especially if you are trying to add mass.

The key to getting a muscle to grow is volume. Volume is defined as sets x reps x weight. That being said, there are few machines that allow you to load up the weight as much as the leg press, which means way more volume, leading to way more growth.

How to Use a Leg Press Machine

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To use a leg press machine, sit down and place your feet on the platform from approximately the same distance they would be if you were squatting. This should be from where you can produce the most power.

Grab the handles and pull yourself into the seat.

Press the weight away from you with your feet keeping three points of contact in your foot (big toe, little toe, and heel) before unlocking the machine.

Lower the weight down, thinking about sitting between your feet and pushing your knees out and away from each other.

Lower the weight as far as you can, making sure your butt doesn’t roll underneath you. Then press using your whole foot to get the weight away from you.

It is easy to get carried away and load up this exercise with way more weight than is appropriate, so check your ego and make lighter weight feel heavy until the heavy weight feels light.

1. Cable Machine

If you could only use one gym machine for the rest of your life (obviously, I am not counting free weights) it should be the cable pulley system.

There is no other piece of gym machinery more versatile than the cable machine. You can adjust the height to change the angle of resistance, which allows you to target different muscle groups, or the same muscle group at a different angle.

You can also use any number of attachments including, but not limited to: a straight bar, a cambered bar, a rope, handles, neutral grip bar, lat pulldown bar, and ankle straps, just to name a few. These can all be used for a multitude of functions and exercises.

Realistically, you could spend your entire workout moving the pulley up, and down, switching attachments, training the same, or different muscle groups, and never run out of things to do.

How to Use a Cable Machine

There are an infinite number of ways to use a cable machine. Watch this Cable Straight Deadlift to Squat move by Fitplan Trainer Linn Löwes.

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Plant your feet hip width apart, set your weight and grab the handle with both hands.

Perform a deadlift, then once you rise back up, perform a squat.

Continue this combination in a slow, controlled and fluid motion.

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