Exercise Machine Alternatives

Some exercise machines don't live up to their size.

Two woman do lunges while holding dumbbells

If you want to get the same (or an even better) workout at home as you do at the gym, you can substitute a few dumbbells or kettlebells, some floor space and some creativity for the big bulky exercise equipment at your local fitness center.

In addition to getting a more convenient and less expensive workout, you can actually build muscles that you might use in daily life by using bodyweight and dumbbell workouts.

Yes, the exercise machines at the gym are generally easier and safer to use—it’s unlikely that you’ll drop a weight on your toe while using the overhead press machine—but you sacrifice function by skipping the small muscles that act as stabilizers, and you generally don’t use most of those moves in real life.

Here are a few substitutions for the gym exercise equipment.

Instead of: The Leg Press Machine

Do This: Full Squats

Like most exercise machines, the leg press machine doesn't work any of the stabilizers in the ankles, knees, hips, glutes, shoulders, or lower back. And because you are sitting with your back supported, this type of movement pattern is unlike most of the real lifting you might actually encounter in life or in sports. Instead, perform a squat using a barbell, or you can modify this for home by holding two dumbbells or a kettlebell.

Instead of: The Seated Leg Extension Machine

Do This: Weighted Walking Lunge

The seated leg extension is one of the most useless exercises you can do in the gym.

In addition to the fact that you will never do this type of exercise in real life or in sports, it can put a lot of stress on the knee joint. You may think that if you play a sport that requires kicking a ball (soccer, football) the leg extension machine is a good way to build quad strength for kicking.

The problem is, athletes don’t kick with both legs—one foot is generally planted firmly on the ground as you propel yourself forward and kick through the ball. This movement requires a lot of balance, stabilization, and torque that you can’t simulate while sitting on a machine and contracting both quads (and nothing else) at the same time.

Try the weighted walking lunge instead. This move will help you build leg strength ( the glutes, quads and calves) and improves balance and stability, one leg at a time.

Instead of: The Seated Chest Press Machine

Do This: Pushups + Lat Row

Pushing away from your chest while sitting in the chest press machine not only favors the stronger side, but it ignores the posterior chain (the muscles that stabilize the back of the body from head to toes).  A better bet is the good ole fashioned pushup, but add a dumbbell row and get both a back and chest workout in one move.  Grab two moderate weight dumbbells, and alternate doing a pushup, and a lat row as shown in the example.

Instead of: The Hip Abductor/Adductor Machine

Do This: ​Sliding Side Lunge 

This is one of the strangest machines to ever make it to the health clubs. Although it’s designed to work the ab- and adductors, it doesn’t do a good job of working them the way you might need them to function in real life or in sports. To make this a functional exercise that mimics a move you might use during sports, you’ll need to stand up at a minimum. When you're playing sports, running or doing anything active, the ab- and adductor’s main function is to provide stability for the hips and knees. The sliding side-to-side lunge helps keep these muscles strong and balanced in a more natural way. 

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