8 Dumbbell Exercises That Are More Effective Than Weight Machines

Weight machines were once all the rage at the gym, and you may still use them when you train. But times have changed, and here's why: Machines lock you into a predetermined path of motion, which takes away the ability to challenge and strengthen core and stabilizer muscles, says Mark Nutting, CSCS.

Dumbbell exercises will give you more results than the machines. (Image: Hinterhaus Productions/DigitalVision/GettyImages)

In short, machines don't mimic functional movements. "Strength doesn't transfer as well from machines to daily activities as well as free weights," Nutting says. This doesn't mean, however, that you have to lift heavy weights to get results. Even your body weight qualifies as a strength-training workout.

When making the switch from a machine exercise to the free-weight version, use lighter weights than you used on the machine until you nail your form, since free weights will feel more challenging. Try these machine-to-dumbbell swaps to take your results to the next level and add variety to your workout.

1. Instead of: the Leg Press Machine

Do: Goblet Squats

Replace the leg press machine with a dumbbell goblet squat. (Image: opolja/iStock/GettyImages)
  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in front of your chest.
  2. Keep your head up and your chest high, eyes focused straight ahead.
  3. Keep your weight in your heels as you lower yourself toward the ground by bending at the hips and knees.
  4. Continue lowering yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can go while keeping your heels on the ground ).
  5. Pause and slowly stand back up and repeat 12 to 15 times.

Pushing the heavy plate of the leg press machine with your legs while seated can contribute to back pain over time. "Squats get the glutes as well as the hamstrings and are a much more productive exercise," says Tom Holland, CSCS, author of Beat the Gym.

2. Instead of: the Leg Extension Machine

Do: Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian split squats are more effective than the leg extension machine. (Image: Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images)
  1. Stand about two feet in front of a bench, hands holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lift up and position one leg behind you on the bench, most of your weight should be on your front leg.
  3. Keeping the back leg steady and stable, bend the front knee as you lower your hips toward the ground in a lunge.
  4. Do 12 to 15 reps and switch legs.

The movement of this machine — sitting and extending your legs outward — is simply not functional, says Holland. "Plus, it creates a lot of shear force on the knees." Split squats target your quads without the excess stress of the leg-extension machine.

3. Instead of: Overhead Press Machine

Do: Shoulder Presses

Replace the overhead press machine with an overhead dumbbell press. (Image: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/GettyImages)
  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, abs braced tight and shoulders stacked over hips.
  2. With a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, press weights overhead.
  3. Control the weight as you lower back to starting position without arching backward.
  4. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.

Using dumbbells instead of a machine allows you to naturally work with the entire range of motion of your shoulders, says Jessica Smith, certified personal trainer. "The machine makes you work in a specific track that may not be best for your shoulders or specific limitations."

Plus, if done standing, overhead dumbbell presses also work the core and keep the entire body engaged (as compared with a seated press machine), which means you're working more muscles and burning more calories for the same exercise.

4. Instead of: the Triceps Extension Machine

Do: Overhead Triceps Extensions

The overhead dumbbell extension is a great substitute for the triceps extension machine. (Image: Vladimir Sukhachev/iStock/GettyImages)
  1. Stand holding a dumbbell overhead, both hands wrapped around the same end and making a triangle with your thumbs and forefingers.
  2. Drop your chin slightly toward your chest, lean forward just a bit and brace your abdominals.
  3. With your upper arms next to your ears and elbows up toward the ceiling, slowly lower the dumbbell toward the center of your back.
  4. Pause and slowly straighten arms to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

Poor posture during the effort of the extensions, such as rounding the shoulders or jutting the neck forward, is a problem on this machine and can also strain the elbow joint if not used properly, says Smith. The overhead dumbbell extension, on the other hand, allows for better posture and alignment of the spine, plus it activates the core more.

5. Instead of: the Chest Press Machine

Do: One-Arm Dumbbell Chest Presses

Opt for a one-arm dumbbell chest press instead of the machine. (Image: Hiraman/E+/GettyImages)
  1. Lie on your back on either a weight bench or stability ball, holding a dumbbell in one hand out to the side with your elbow bent at a right angle or "goalpost" formation.
  2. Keep you other arm across your body for balance.
  3. Brace your abdominals and bring the dumbbell up and toward the center of your body.
  4. Slowly lower it back down to the starting position.
  5. Repeat 12 to 15 times on each arm.

Chest-press machines use their own line of force, which limits the range of motion, says Nutting. Using dumbbells requires more muscle stability and allows for a greater range of motion. Performing a single-arm dumbbell press further maximizes the core challenge by forcing you to stabilize your body while lifting weight on only one side.

6. Instead of: the Pec Deck

Do: Dumbbell Chest Flyes

Skip the pec deck and opt for the dumbbell chest fly instead. (Image: JGI/Tom Grill/Tetra images/GettyImages)
  1. Lie on an exercise bench with your back flat and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Bring the weights together straight over your chest, palms facing each other.
  3. Keeping the elbows slightly bent, lower the weights out to the side of your chest.
  4. Contract your pecs and slowly return the weights to the starting position.
  5. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

As with the chest-press machine, the chest fly (or "pec deck") forces you into a set range of motion, with the added danger of positioning the machine's arms too far back, which can strain shoulders.

7. Instead of: the Seated Rowing Machine

Do: One-Arm Dumbbell Rows

The dumbbell row will work your abs in addition to your back. (Image: PRImageFactory/iStock/GettyImages)
  1. Place one knee and the same-side hand on a bench for support and make sure your back is flat and parallel to the ground.
  2. Position your standing foot slightly back and to the side, then pick up a dumbbell with your free hand.
  3. Using a slow and controlled rowing motion, pull the dumbbell up toward your ribs on that side, pause and slowly return back to starting position.
  4. Repeat 12 to 15 times before switching sides.

When you use both arms together on the machine, you enable the stronger arm to take over, but you avoid that with one-arm dumbbell rows, which enable you to strengthen your weaker side.

8. Instead of: the Shoulder Raise Machine

Do: Lateral Dumbbell Raises

Who needs the shoulder raise machine when you can do lateral dumbbell raises? (Image: bulatovic/iStock/GettyImages)
  1. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your palms together in front of your thighs with your elbows slightly bent.
  2. Raise your arms up and out to the sides until your elbows are at shoulder height.
  3. Pause and return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

Performing shoulder raises with dumbbells allows you to alter the movement to make it easier on your shoulder joint, says Nutting. "The position should be more 'thumbs up' and closer in toward the body. Positioning them a little in front of the shoulder is also easier on the shoulder joint."

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