Let's get this out of the way up front: I'll never tell you to abandon barbells and dumbbells—they're time-tested physique-building tools. But some lifters claim machines make a movement too easy because you don't have to balance the weight, or that they don't replicate real-world activities because you're being artificially supported.
To those folks, I say you're simply suffering from a lack of imagination! It's because you don't have to balance the weight that machines allow you to safely handle even higher loads. The fixed, controlled range of motion machines provide allows you to better isolate the target muscle with a weight that increases the overload.
Let's take a look at four inventive lower-body exercises from Cellucor athletes Jen Jewell and Calum von Moger that prove the relationship between man and machine needn't be so adversarial.
1. Glute Kick-Back On Leg-Curl Machine
This movement isn't exactly "on" the machine, but it's pretty close. It's a favorite of trainer and fitness model Jen Jewell; she uses it in place of the butt blaster, a glute machine that's not readily available in most gyms. The unconventional starting position on the floor allows you to train unilaterally against the smooth, plate-loaded resistance of the machine.
The move: Grab a mat and place it on the floor just in front of the leg-curl station, just beyond the machine's moving lever. Facing away from the machine, start on all fours, as you would for a bodyweight glute kick-back. Extend one leg directly behind you, placing that foot securely on the leg-curl pad, keeping your knee bent at 90 degrees and off the floor. Push through your heel, and extend your leg back to full extension.
The perk: "You can really feel the glutes working on this one, and it takes stress off the low back," says Jewell. "Often, when you're doing a standing kick-back using cables, you invite momentum, or the low back becomes more involved than it should."
Additionally, you can take this exercise beyond failure by having a partner simply move the pin up the stack to lighten the weight as you reach initial muscle failure.
Protocol: Perform 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
2. Reverse Hack Squat
For former Mr. Universe Calum von Moger, this flipped move adds versatility to the hack-squat machine. Instead of placing your back against the pad, which would target your quads, you can change the muscular emphasis by facing the pad instead.
The move: Facing the pad, position your shoulders squarely under the shoulder pads and your upper chest against the back pad. Machines differ by manufacturer, but make sure you get a secure footing with your entire foot supported. With your body angled on the bench, ensure your feet are positioned in line with the rest of your torso. Unlock the handles, and extend through your hips and knees to rise to the top. From here, inhale deeply and lower the weight by bending at your hips and knees, making sure to keep your back flat.
In the reverse position, your back is unsupported, so it's important to keep it flat throughout. At the bottom, forcefully press through your feet to full knee and hip extension without locking out at the top. Also, some machines force your head to turn to the side, which really disrupts cervical alignment, so be extra careful not to push with your head.
The perk: The hip flexion afforded by this range of motion allows you to increase the involvement of your glutes and hamstrings. Depending on the size of the platform, you can adjust your foot placement in or out to enlist different areas of your legs—narrow for the outer sweep, wider to hit your teardrop and inner thigh muscles—but you should still keep your feet near the base of the platform.
Protocol: Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
3. Single-Leg Cable Romanian Deadlift
Romanian deadlifts are the ideal exercise for hitting your glute-ham tie-in. There are many variations of this bread-and-butter exercise, including this one that doesn't enlist free weights. Jewell likes to take advantage of the constant tension afforded by cables to target this area.
The move: Attach a D-handle at the lowest setting of a cable station, so that the handle is at ground level when you start. Facing the cable stack, grab the handle with one hand, and step back approximately 2-3 feet to infuse the cable with tension.
Begin on your left side, holding the attachment in your left hand. Keeping your left foot planted, elevate your right leg up and behind you as you hinge forward at the hips, pushing your glutes back and stretching forward a bit with your left arm in the hamstrings-extended position. Contract your hamstrings to rise back up against the added resistance, keeping your arm extended so you're not pulling with your biceps and lats. Repeat all reps on your left side, then switch to the right and repeat.
The perk: "I always include some form of unilateral training into my leg day, with at least 1-2 exercises and some form of single-leg deadlifts," says Jewell. "I love how I'm able to perform these in a slow, controlled manner, and I'm really able to focus on the mind-muscle connection, as each rep is so controlled. I also get in a bit more of a stretch on this one than I do when I use dumbbells or kettlebells."
Protocol: Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
4. Cable Jump Squat
Jewell started experimenting with this move as an alternative to traditional jump squats. "I love to incorporate weighted jump squats," says Jewell, "but I don't want to jump around with a bar across my upper back and risk injuring myself with the barbell shifting, or have weight bearing down on my neck when performing the motion." Safety (and comfort) first!
The move: Set two D-handles (or a bar) at their lowest setting, ideally at a FreeMotion machine. Facing the machine, grab the handles and back away 2-3 feet to infuse the cables with tension. Holding the handles in a front-squat position, descend into a squat, then explode up and off the floor. Land softly, and descend immediately into the next rep.
The perk: Because the anchor point for the weight is low and in front of you, your jump is somewhat up and back. This means a slightly greater contribution from your quads to keep the movement under control. Jewell likes to vary the width of her starting stance to emphasize different areas. "When I do this as part of a full-body routine, as I jump up, I'll perform a rowing movement with the handles out in front of me and pull my elbows directly backward," she says.
Protocol: Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 max effort jumps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets.