Q: I notice that in your Ultimate Exercises for each bodypart [listed in The Ultimate Mass Workout e-book] that some of them are on machines. Then in many of the programs in that e-book, as well as your others, you have some machine exercises in the workouts, such as pulldowns and Smith-machine incline presses. Most of the pros say to stay with free weights. If I want ultimate mass, shouldn’t I just stick with barbells and dumbbells?

A: Is it better to travel by horse or car? It depends on the terrain, right? Yes, in many instances barbells and dumbbells are best because they allow a more natural movement—more freedom. Machines tend to restrict the stroke to one plane, as in the vertical bar movement on Smith-machine incline presses or squats.

But—and this is a big but—whether your best individual choice is a barbell, dumbbells, or a machine depends on the feel of the exercise, which is a function of neuromuscular efficiency in a bodypart; that is, the nerve-to-muscle connections.

For example, we both have low neuromuscular efficiency in our pecs. When we do incline presses with a barbell or dumbbells, our delts and triceps tend to take over. We get very little chest stimulation.

Steve spotting Jonathan on incline Smith machine presses - Ultimate Exercises and Mass Machines

On the other hand, when we do incline presses on a Smith machine, we only have to worry about moving the bar, not balancing it, so we can better focus on our pecs—we can stay locked in on the target muscle and drive our hands inward isometrically to better innervate the upper chest. Plus, end-of-set X-Rep partials are easier to control on a machine, which adds to fiber recruitment.

Keep in mind that the biggest bodybuilders who suggest all free weights all the time have superior neuromuscular efficiency in almost every bodypart. If you fall into that category then, yes, free weights will probably be best for you on almost every exercise because you can target the appropriate bodypart, getting optimal feel and innervation.

If you’re not in the genetic-superman category, you will have a number of bodyparts that require special attention to detail to get a growth response. Those are your lagging muscle groups (and hardgainers have the majority of muscles that are slackers). If you cannot feel a bodypart working, it’s probably got deficient nerve connections and you’ll have to experiment with various exercises, including machine work, to get at the most growth fibers possible.

Something else to consider: the angles that are impossible to attack with free weights. For example, the Ultimate Exercise for hamstrings is feet-forward Smith machine squats. The key is the body angle with the feet out in front of the hips as you squat. You can’t achieve that with a barbell unless you are some kind of levitation wizard. There is no compound free-weight exercise for hamstrings (stiff-legged deadlifts is a stretch-position move); feet-forward Smith-machine squats is the best choice.

Jonathan Lawson front squats on Smith machine - Ultimate Exercises and Mass Machines

What about pulldowns vs. chins? Research shows that different lat fibers come into play depending on the angle of pull—in other words, the amount of torso lean emphasizes different sections more than others. You can’t vary your torso angle much, if at all, on chins. Don’t get us wrong: the chinup is a great exercise—but you should augment it with pulldowns as well—one set of chins, one set of pulldowns with a slight backward lean, one set of pulldowns with a more severe backward lean.

Anyone who makes a blanket statement that free weights are better than machines isn’t thinking things through or is merely repeating outdated dogma. You must use all the tools at your disposal to create the best muscle development you can—and sometimes that means training on machines. Incidentally, in Chapter 5 of the X-Rep Update #1 e-book, Mr. O’s Wild X-O Workouts, we discuss and analyze former Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler’s training; he uses many machines, including Smith machine squats and Hammer Strength chest machines.

Till next time, train hard—and smart—for BIG results.

—Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson

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