The Best Exercise Machines to Build Muscle

While some people look down on anything but free weights, a number of machines have been tested over time and proven themselves equal to or even superior to free weights at certain exercises. Machines allow you to work out safely without a spotter. They allow you to isolate muscles you otherwise wouldn't be able to. If you've been shunning exercise machines and your goal is a complete physique, it's time to take a second look.

Chest Press Machine

The chest press machine works your pectorals, your front deltoid heads and your triceps. There are a number of reasons to choose machine chest presses over the free-weight bench. You can follow up the free-weight bench with the chest press if your support muscles are tired but your pectorals are still fresh. The chest press machine can help some people with shoulder problems. A heavy bench press is dangerous to perform without a spotter, but a machine lets you go all out without worry. To perform a chest press, adjust the seat so that the handles are aligned with your mid-pectorals, sit at the machine and press the weight out. Perform sets of eight to 12 reps.

Shoulder Press Machine

The shoulder press machine works the deltoids, the upper pectorals and the triceps. The shoulder press machine has all the advantages of the chest press machine. The machine shoulder press is an excellent exercise to perform after dumbbell shoulder presses. Many gyms don't have dedicated barbell shoulder press stations, making heavy shoulder work difficult without the shoulder press machine. To perform a machine shoulder press, adjust the seat so that the handles are slightly below your range of motion. Press the weight up. Perform sets of eight to 12 reps.

Lat Tower

Chinups are the ultimate back exercise, but they have some drawbacks. It's difficult to adjust the weight beyond your body weight, either up or down. If you are building up to chinups, the lat tower is your best friend. Once you've gotten strong enough to move your own body weight in lat pulldowns, you'll be ready to perform chinups. To perform a lat pulldown, adjust the thigh pads to keep your butt on the seat. Grab the bar. A palms-forward grip will isolate the lats. A palms-back grip will involve the biceps more. Pull the bar until it's lower than your chin. In "Strength Training Anatomy," Robert Kennedy explains that if you pull the bar to behind your head, you can better involve the lower traps and upper lats, but it requires flexible shoulders and precise form and might not be worth the risk of shoulder injury. Perform sets of eight to 12.

Leg Press

The leg press is a great alternative to squats for building leg strength. In fact, in the "Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding," Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler tells author Robert Kennedy that his first heavy exercise in his leg workout isn't the squat, but the leg press. To perform a leg press, sit on the leg press machine. Lower the sled until just before your lower back begins to roll away from the seat. This is different for everyone, depending on your flexibility. If you do this correctly, you can do the leg press even if you have a bad back. Press the sled back up, being careful not to lock your knees at the top. Perform sets of eight to 12.

Leg Extension Machine

In the "Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding," Robert Kennedy explains that many pros begin their leg workout with leg extensions, including eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, current Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler, and Lee Priest, the 5-foot 4-inch giant-killer. This is because the leg extension machine allows you to do something that no exercise in real life can -- completely isolate the quadriceps muscles. To perform a leg extension, sit at the leg extension machine. Place your shins behind the pads. Straighten your legs against the resistance. Perform this exercise in sets of eight to 12.

Smith Machine

In "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," Arnold Schwarzenegger calls the Smith machine his favorite machine. It's easy to see why. The Smith machine is probably the most versatile machine in your gym. It's a barbell that slides vertically along guide bars. It removes the need for balance and allows for the placement of safety catches to make heavy exercises safe to perform alone. With a Smith machine you can do bench press, shoulder press, squats, standing calf raises, shrugs and many other classic, effective exercises.

About the Author

Jeffrey Rice became an ACE-accredited personal trainer in 2007, and began writing about fitness to support his business. Soon, however, he found himself writing more than training, and has since written health, fitness and supplement articles for numerous websites. He holds a M.F.A. in creative writing from Cleveland State University.