Rage Against the Machine
You’re a Powerlifter, you don’t need machines, you can do everything you need with a barbell and a rack. Whilst this is a true statement there are an increasing number of machines that could, perhaps even should, be used by Powerlifters during the training year.
Let’s start with the pros and cons of machine work before we delve into specific examples, as always, I’ll aim to finish this article with some takeaways that you can implement into your training plan as soon as you want.
Machines are low thought and therefore usually very safe. Due to their nature and often predetermined patterns of movement, machines present an incredibly low risk alternative to barbell or dumbbell movements. This also creates an incredibly consistent pattern allowing lifters to ingrain certain techniques and really feel the target muscle groups working. For beginner to intermediate lifters the technique gains from certain machines (Belt Squat, V-Squat) spring to mind. For advanced and elite lifters, they present an opportunity to load heavily and/or unilaterally without excessive risk of injury or additional balance challenges. Comparing a unilateral leg press to a split squat for example and I’m sure you can see for someone such as Eric Lilliebridge that the logistical difficulties of a barbell split squat with sufficient load to gain a stimulus are not even worth considering.
The argument against machines from a biomechanical standpoint is almost irrelevant currently. Technology and innovation have combined to create machines which can almost exactly replicate the competition lifts themselves. Using the Belt Squat as an example you can (with enough time fiddling about in your setup) create an almost identical movement pattern but without the associated stress to your upper back, elbows, wrists and core that comes with squatting either heavy or for reps (especially Low Bar). With machine designers now forced to think outside the box in a crowded marketplace there are many innovative designs coming to the marketplace that allow lifters to gain fantastic stimulus that closely resembles the competition lifts themselves.
Let’s delve a little into the typical season structure of a Powerlifter and see at what points which machines would be most useful. Let’s assume that for the purposes of this article we have a competitive powerlifter who will be aiming for a qualification total at their first comp of the year and then have one other major comp later in the year that they are aiming for peak performance at. In the off-season you can make the strongest case to have a programme that almost entirely consists of machines with the focus on building up weak links, improving work capacity, minimizing imbalances and reducing load on any sites of injury.
In this period focusing on unilateral work would be a great option for the lifter with an eye on a career lasting longer than a year and having some kind of ability to survive daily living. For almost all of us there is not enough money to be had from powerlifting to justify sacrificing your long-term health. The other benefit of having a programme consisting of zero competition variations is building up local work capacity (the ability of a muscle group to produce a specific output) and massively reducing the associated wear and tear that comes from competition specific lifts (massive arches, shoulder strain, wrist and elbow issues all included). This allows a lifter to enter into a competition strength block completely refreshed and looking forward to implementing the barbell lifts again into their training.
Below is a sample off season upper/lower split machine/cable only workout routine. Each session to be performed 2x per week alongside 1 day of core, mobility and LISS work.
|Unilateral Plate Loaded Chest Press||2||8||3||9|
|Plate Loaded Shoulder Press||2||10||3||8|
|Smith Machine Incline Bench||2||12||3||8|
|Plate Loaded Unilateral Row||3||15||2||8.5|
|Machine Reverse Flye||4||20||1.5||8.5|
|Unilateral Leg Press||2||8||3||9|
|Slow Eccentric Unilateral Leg Extension||2||10||3||8|
|Slow Eccentric Unilateral Leg Curl||2||12||3||8|
|Lying Leg Curl||3||15||2||8.5|
|Smith Machine Hip Thrust||3||15||2||8.5|
|Smith Machine Calf Raise||4||20||1.5||8.5|
After 8-12 weeks of this type of training a lifter should be excited to bring back in barbell work. When this is done the lifter has a couple of choices dependent on their likelihood of hitting the QT needed to gain them entry to the focus competition later in the year. We are going to assume that the lifter needs to do an 8 week focused block to regain movement efficiency in the comp lifts and that will be sufficient to achieve the QT. With this in mind, machines can play a different role or remain the same dependent on the individual. I would advise to keep pursuing unilateral work with the machines and simply alter the rep ranges to suit the needs of that phase of training. A sample upper body workout to provoke a mini peak is below
UPPER MINI PEAK
|Competition Bench Press||2||3||3||9|
|Shoulder Width Bench Press||2||5||2.5||8|
|Unilateral Chest Press||2||8||2||8|
|Plate Loaded Row||3||8||2||9|
|Plate Loaded Unilateral Row||3||20||1.5||8.5|
Once the QT is successfully achieved the lifter would normally be 16-20 weeks out from the main focus of the competitive season. This is the time to throw the competition lifts back in and make the accessory work as specific as possible. Machines can still play a very important part to this phase of training in many different scenarios. Let us take a look at a few below.
Scenario 1 – The lifter with dodgy elbows. This is the lifter who can’t bench after their low bar squat day due to some elbow tendinitis issues. Well, why don’t we get them to squat and bench on the same day and then perform one accessory exercise for each exercise? So, for example they could squat, perform heavy accessory work on the belt squat, then do heavy leg press before moving onto bench, then using board and machine variations to prevent the elbow from flaring up. This will allow them to hit the movement pattern with enough stimulus and load to get stronger whilst mitigating their pain, which in turn will allow them to train those movement patterns more often, win win!
Scenario 2 – The talented beginner. This is the lifter who hasn’t been training for a long period of time but shows great promise in the sport. They are however prone to pushing too hard, failing lifts and generally overworking/injuring themselves. These lifters are ideal candidates for heavy and frequent machine work. Even if they did train to failure on machines the risk of injury is so much less and there is comparatively little cumulative fatigue that they can still be pushed hard and feel like they’re working but in a much safer environment.
Scenario 3 – The average lifter. This is almost all of us, you’ve done your main deadlift work, then you’ve done your paused deadlifts and now the programme says barbell row. Ugh, that’s a hassle, stripping and loading another bar, being bent over with a crippling lower back pump, no chance. Well, why not just head on over to the plate loaded/seated row machine and hammer those lats without any of the bother caused by doing a barbell row? This means you can absolutely blast yourself on your main work and still be excited and not want to skip your accessories.
Here is a list of my favourite machines (in no particular order) and the purpose I use them for:
- Matt Wenning Belt Squat – Amazing for getting serious volume into the legs with a multitude of stances without any stress on the core/upper body. Also amazing for teaching the movement pattern.
- Plate loaded seated row – Low or high variation, these machines are incredible for getting a massive ROM and contraction in your lats that just cannot be done with a barbell or dumbbell, again with negligible shear forces on the spine.
- V-Squat – Front squats, good mornings, split squats, Viking press, the V-Squat does it all and in such a smooth controlled movement pattern. For super high rep leg work there is no better alternative.
- Smith Machine – Split squats and overhead work can be loaded up with effectively zero risk on this machine giving a frighteningly potent unilateral or overhead stimulus.
So as we can see, neglecting machines due to some odd obsession with a barbell is, quite frankly, daft. Machines are hugely important to powerlifting training for many reasons. Feel free to contact me specifically for more details and keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming 6 month periodized powerlifting plan which will be released very soon.
Ciao for now!