Whether you’re new to the gym or have been working out for years, there’s a good chance you’re not doing yourself any huge favors using machines when simple workout moves will do the trick.

Will Hayes

Will Hayes, performance manager at Novant Health Sport Performance Huntersville, recognizes that gym machines have a place for beginners because they’re simple to use while providing guidance and stability within specific movements. However, many of us tend to overload the machines and use them incorrectly, causing injury or ineffective movements.

Hayes walks us through five machines most of us should avoid and simple alternatives that are safer and probably more effective.

To be your best, feel your best. Book a sports medicine appointment.

Start here

Chest press gym

5 machines to avoid and safer alternatives

Chest press machine

Chest press machines are “not hyper effective and you are missing a lot of bang for your buck,” Hayes said. If you are looking for an exercise to target the chest, try doing pushups instead. Modifications — doing pushups on your knees or elevated on a bench — are great ways to get your form down.

Purple leg press machine at the gym

Leg press machine

Leg press machines are good for learning form and controlling the weight that you are lifting; however, it can cause stress to the lower back. “People will tend to overload the machine beyond what they are capable of doing, which can lead to injury,” Hayes said. Squats and squat variations are a good way to target quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves in a controlled way.

Purple knee extension machine at the gym

Knee extension machine

Knee extension machines cause a lot of stress on the anterior knee (front of knee) that could lead to injury. Hayes recommends split squats or lunges to target your quads without the added stress on your knees.

Purple crunch machine at the gym

Crunch machine

Crunch machines can add unnecessary stress to the lumbar spine (lower back), which could potentially lead to injury. “There are much more functional options that will benefit people more,” Hayes suggests trying plank variations to get your core active.


Abductor machine

Abductor machines isolate your movements without building up leg muscles in a functional and productive way. Hayes advises lateral squats or mini band walks to target the glutes, quads (muscles on the front of the thigh) and hamstrings. “All of these exercises can progress with a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells for an additional challenge.”

Working out like a pro

At Novant Health Sport Performance Huntersville, Hayes and his team tend to start patients with body weight exercises that they can build upon. Once you master the movements with just body weight, then Hayes recommends challenging yourself more with resistance bands and added weight. “For people at home, they can even add a bag of flour for additional weight,” said Hayes.

To avoid injury, try any type of active stretching or warmup that will increase your core temperature and enhance your range of motion. “Something as little as five to 10 minutes of basic aerobic activity can warm your body and be a benefit,” Hayes said.

Core and leg-focused exercises are known to improve your balance as well. If you are new to working out, this can be a good place to start. Starting with core and balance focused training can improve your overall strength and help your body progress to more advanced exercises.

Balance training is beneficial for people of all ages, but especially as we get older it becomes more important to help prevent falling. (See story and video demonstration here.)

If you are unsure of where to start when you go into the gym, Hayes recommends starting by training the entire body. “Start slow focus on mastering the technique of the movements you are doing, and progress over time,” Hayes said. “Show up with a plan, so you aren’t intimidated going into the gym for the first time.”

Setting realistic and specific goals are important to form the habit of going to the gym. “We find that if the goal is around habit formation and it’s not outcome driven, the results usually end up taking care of themselves,” Hayes said. “Consistency is the secret that no one wants to talk about, regardless of what happens you always make it a priority and just do it. It’s not going to be a straight line to your outcome-based goal, but over time you will chip away and achieve it.”

Hayes' top piece of advice for people starting their fitness journey: “Go easy on yourself, give yourself some grace,” he said, “And really focus on the habit formation, not the outcomes.”