Even if you enjoy free-weight exercises with barbells and dumbbells, it’s important to know what the best all-machine workout for the legs is.
You probably have already read, and may even believe with all your heart, that the most effective leg routines must include the deadlift and free barbell squat. Some people even insist that weighted walking lunges are an absolute must.
This leads some individuals to believe that an all-machine workout is useless for shaping muscle in the lower body, building lower body strength and burning fat.
Use of free weights, and particularly the deadlift exercise, are consistently touted as the best of the best for working the quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks muscles.
One reason is because free weights force engagement of the core: the lower back and abdominal muscles. Free weights also more mimic everyday movements.
For example, what are the odds that you’ll one day need to press your legs against resistance while in a seated position?
More likely, you’ll need to press your legs against the ground against resistance, such as in picking up a heavy item, or lifting a person off the ground.
On the other hand, who knows, maybe one day you’ll see a head-on car collision coming and will put your feet against the car’s dashboard to act as a shield between you and the dashboard!
Okay, maybe that’s getting a little far-fetched, but it’s a fact that a horizontal and even decline leg press motion can develop leg press strength in a vertical motion against the ground (which is actually a squat).
What Is The No. 1 Machine Workout For The Legs?
It is the Smith squat, or tracked barbell squat. Some might argue, however, that the decline leg press is better.
For people with lower back problems, yes, the leg press is highly preferable, because lower back pain during squatting prevents the trainee from using heavy-enough resistance to challenge the legs and buttocks.
Both of these tools are great for strength training the lower body and building mass, because a tremendous amount of weight can be used. People without back problems should still do leg pressing.
Thus, the top two machine exercises for the legs and gluteal muscles are the tracked barbell squat (“Smith machine”) and the decline leg press – which is the pressing equipment in which the trainee lies with back against a tilted pad that’s close to the floor, legs above him or her.
Next up is the hack squat. This, along with the first two exercises already mentioned, is a compound movement: more than one muscle group is recruited.
The caveat with this equipment is that for some trainees, it hurts the shoulders. The more weight that’s loaded on the equipment, the more pressure on the user’s shoulders from the shoulder pads.
Usually, there is a direct relationship between how much weight a person can squat, and how strong and durable their shoulders are. A man who can squat a ton of weight often has thick slabs of muscle in his shoulders.
However, some women can squat an awful lot of weight, yet do not have the deltoid and trapezius development to withstand the pressure from the shoulder pads that will correspond to all the weight loaded on the machine.
For these women, hack squats are not one of the better machine workouts for their legs.
There may be another caveat with the hack squat, in that some may find it uncomfortable for their lower back, even if they don’t have a “bad” back. This may be why it’s not common to see people waiting in line to use the hack squat.
In summary, the best machine workout for the legs using compound movements are:
➜ Tracked barbell squat
➜ Decline leg press (or horizontal, though decline is better due to ergonomics, subjective comfort, and greater range of motion).
➜ Hack squat
What About Lunges?
If you’re a firm believer that the most efficient leg routine must involve lunges, then you can still use the Smith machine for lunges. It’s just that they won’t be walking lunges.
Don’t let the stationary nature fool you. Tracked barbell lunges are a bear, and can be done with a wide stance or a more narrow stance (for more quadriceps recruitment).
With the right amount of resistance and enough deep repetitions, these absolutely kill, and can be done alternating legs after every rep, or sticking to one side for an entire set before switching legs.
What About Isolation Routines?
Machine workouts are necessary for isolation exercises. It’s impossible to do a hamstring curl or leg extension with a barbell.
Though hamstring curls can be done with a dumbbell between the lower legs, this has severe limitations in that the resistance load is quite compromised.
The leg extension equipment is superb at shaping the thighs, and help form “tear drops” in the quad muscles (which become more visible as body fat levels drop).
The leg extension also excels at strengthening the knee joint and making it more stable.
So though this joint motion is not seen in everyday life, this joint motion against resistance does wonders at reducing the risk of knee problems such as chondromalacia patella (wearing down of the cartilage beneath the kneecap or patella) and patellar femoral syndrome (abnormal tracking of the patella due to cartilage damage).
Cartilage helps absorb shock, and this function is impaired if there’s damage to this tissue. The leg extension is one isolation exercise not to be ridiculed by the “compound is everything” camp.
The hamstring curl is a great isolation exercise because it helps shape and mold a good group of hamstrings for those who want “bulging” or more pronounced hamstring muscles.
It is not true that the biggest guys in the gym do only squats and deadlifts. Men with massive hams are often seen cranking out reps with nearly the entire weight stack, or the entire stack even, on a hamstring curl machine.
For those who aren’t concerned about getting as big as possible, this equipment is beneficial simply because it strengthens this muscle group, which comes in handy for many activities like hiking, running and a number of sports.
Last up, to complete the picture as far as the best leg machine exercises, is the seated calve raise. This is better than the standing equipment because it makes cheating impossible.
The standing version encourages the user to bend his legs, and this shifts workload from the calves to the quadriceps. This can’t happen when the user is seated.
Next time the squat rack is occupied and the tracked barbell device is free, don’t fret and fume; give this equipment a try and you’ll see that it can be one of the best workout machines for the lower body.
There are many more ways to work the muscles of the legs and glutes, as described in No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte.
This book contains all sorts of beginner/intermediate and advanced workout plans for the legs as well as upper body, plus a lot of easy-to-follow information on nutritional support for building lean muscle and slashing body fat.