How to Recreate Your Favorite Gym Machine Exercises At Home
by Jeff Tomko
Weight machines have always been popular among gym goers. And that’s not just because people would rather avoid waiting in long lines for the benches on chest day or have to painstakingly load and unload weight after weight for each exercise.
Machines are convenient, and are oftentimes a safer alternative than their free-weight counterparts. They’re also arguably underrated, when it comes to building strength and muscle; machines can be highly effective tools for those looking to get stronger and pack on muscle. There’s a machine to mimic nearly every traditional weight-training exercise, and increasing or decreasing the load is often as simple as moving a pin up or down the machine’s built-in weight stack.
So, what happens when the machines are too crowded? Or, worse yet, when your hectic schedule no longer matches up with the gym’s operating hours (or you’re just plain tired of trekking to a cluttered fitness center)?
Fortunately, nearly every machine movement can be replicated with minimal equipment. Even better, most can be done at home, and on your own schedule.
“You don’t need fancy equipment to get a very similar workout to what you would at the gym,” says New York City-based personal trainer Blake Holman. “If you have a dumbbell or kettlebell or resistance band at home, there’s more than likely a way for you to replicate machine-based exercises. It’s as simple as that.”
Read on to find out how you can recreate five of the most popular machine-based exercises at home.
Machine: Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown machine offers effective movement for both the seasoned athlete looking to broaden their back and the gym newbie who might not yet be physically equipped to do a pullup. The machine’s multitude of optional grip attachments only add to its versatility.
Try this: Pullup Superman
The name may sound super intimidating, but the pullup Superman actually requires zero equipment, yet is an excellent substitute for the lat pulldown. The move is challenging by itself, and you can increase the difficulty level if needed by simply adding a resistance band. “Because it requires no equipment, this is one of the easiest machine replications around,” Holman says. “Not only will you be utilizing your lat muscles, but you’re going to get plenty of lower-back work as well.”
How to do it: Lie face down on the floor, extending your arms out in front of you and your legs out behind you. Engaging both your lower back and shoulders, raise your chest and arms off the floor. From here, pull your elbows in towards you as if you were performing a lat pulldown (or pullup), making sure to engage your lats in the process. Pause when your elbows are just a few inches from your sides, then slowly return your arms to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Machine: Chest Press
When all the benches are taken on International Chest Day (and, well, pretty much every other day), the chest press machine becomes a hot piece of real estate. It provides that coveted pump for your pecs, with no heavy weight changing required.
Try this: Pushup
That’s right: Hollywood’s favorite exercise remains one of the most effective, and, perhaps surprising to some, also one of the most versatile. Hand placement and body positioning can be manipulated to both increase or decrease its difficulty and switch up the muscles being targeted. “What makes pushups so great is that they can be modified for just about anyone’s ability level,” Holman says.
How to do it: Starting from a plank position, brace your core and keep your palms and fingers actively engaged with the floor. With your upper arms at about a 45-degree angle to your torso, begin lowering your body at a controlled tempo until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause momentarily, then drive back up to the starting position. That’s one rep. (You can also use a resistance band to increase the difficulty level of this exercise.)
Machine: Shoulder Press
As anyone who suffers from shoulder mobility issues will likely already know, the shoulder press machine can be a safer, more joint-friendly substitute for pressing a dumbbell or barbell overhead. Hence, this machine ranks high in popularity, for better or worse.
Try this: Band Overhead Press
Switching out weights in favor of a resistance band not only targets the same muscles, but also provides a shoulder stability challenge on both the concentric (pressing) and eccentric (lowering) phases of the movement. And you’ll be working more than just your shoulders with this move, Holman says. “Band presses are going to challenge your core stability too. When done right, you should definitely feel your abs working.”
How to do it: To start, stand with both feet on one end of a light to medium continuous resistance band. Hold the other end with both hands at shoulder height, palms angled forward about shoulder-width apart. The band should look something like a vertical rectangle, with your hands and feet at the corners. Keeping your core tight, extend your arms above you as you would for a typical weighted shoulder press, then lower with a controlled tempo back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Machine: Leg Press
The leg press is a popular exercise in and of itself for its ability to effectively support quad development. That said, it’s also a favorite of those who squat—namely, for its ego-boosting ability to allow the user to load more weight than they’d normally put on a barbell.
Try this: Kettlebell Goblet Squat
The goblet squat can be trusted to hit your quads about as effectively as any machine exercise. A kettlebell is convenient for holding, but other types of equipment can work just fine here. “Goblet squats are so versatile,” Holman says. “You can do these with dumbbells, kettlebells, or even bands, and not only are your legs going to feel it, but you’re going to get some bonus core work in as well.”
How to do it: Standing tall with feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointed slightly outward, grab the handle of the kettlebell with both hands and hold it against your chest. (If using a dumbbell, hold it horizontally with each hand grasping an end.) With your chest up and core braced, begin lowering yourself into a squat until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Pause for a beat at the bottom, and then drive through your heels to rise back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Machine: Seated Row
Rows can help you achieve a thicker, broader back by targeting both the lats and the rear deltoids. The seated row machine—especially when paired with the ergonomic V-shaped handle that allows you to pull with both hands in a neutral grip—is another immensely popular and potentially effective back strengthening movement for gymgoers of all strength levels.
Try this: Resistance Band Seated Row
Resistance band rows are almost a perfect replication of the machine-assisted version. The more bands you have, the more tension levels you can challenge your back and lats with. But even one band will allow for some range: “Instead of moving a pin up the weight stack to increase load, you can use a thicker band or move further back to increase the intensity,” Holman says.
How to do it: To perform the seated version, start by attaching one end of a resistance band to a secure object. Sit on the floor, legs either extended or bent (whichever feels more comfortable), and hold the other end of the band with both hands using a neutral grip. Engage your core, and then begin pulling the band in towards the bottom of your ribcage as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Pause at the peak of the contraction before returning to the starting position. That’s one rep.