I believe that strength training should be a lifetime pursuit, and I like to read stories about how old-time strongmen are still strong and bodybuilders are still big. I submit for your consideration Lou Ferrigno.
Many remember Ferrigno from the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron. The climax of this muscle movie was Ferrigno’s posedown against Arnold at the 1975 Mr. Olympia. Arnold won easily, and in fact Ferrigno ended up taking third behind the late Serge Nubret of France. Ferrigno soon left the posing dais for Hollywood to appear in the Incredible Hulk television series; it would be 17 years before Ferrigno again took the stage at the Olympia, where he placed 12th in 1992 and then 10th the following year.
What is remarkable is that if you compare the photos from the 1975 and 1993 Mr. Olympias, you’ll see that Ferrigno hadn’t lost any ground in 18 years (unlike Arnold, whose embarrassing photos of him at the beach recently in a Speedo showed that he wouldn’t have stood a chance against Ferrigno in a rematch). But such muscular longevity came with a cost.
Ferrigno always trained extremely hard and heavy, and the results of such extreme wear and tear resulted in eventually having to endure hip and knee replacement surgeries. Does this suggest hard training will always result in extreme orthopedic problems? Of course not, but athletes such as Lou Ferrigno have a mindset to see how hard they can push the body – and in Ferrigno’s case, how long the body can take it.
The reason I bring up Ferrigno’s story is that it provides one justification for having lifting machines in a gym. Yes, the squat is the king of exercises. Yes, power cleans and incline bench presses are great for athletes. But sometimes Father Time gets the best of us and we simply have to find other ways to stay strong – and machines offer such an opportunity. Further, although Ferrigno has the motivation to always train hard, which he believes was inspired by challenges in his childhood, you can help keep your own motivation high by using a variety of machines. If you’ve been busting your gut on squats for a month and as a result have frequent visits from Oompa-Loompas jumping up and down on your L3-L5 vertebrae, you’ll find that taking a break with leg presses and reverse hypers will give your back a chance to recover without losing strength.
With that background, let’s conclude this series with a discussion on how to safely get the most out of a few of the most popular lower body machines.
Leg Press. In the early days of the iron game, athletes would perform vertical leg presses by balancing the weight across their bare feet (and things got even worse when this practice was replaced with performing squats while standing on a Swiss ball). Eventually vertical leg press machines were developed with guided rods to provide stability. Horizontal machines followed, but the most popular are the incline versions. Design variations make it difficult to compare one’s performance on one machine to that on another, but there is no question that considerably more weight can be used with these machines compared to the weight you can lift in squats. I have seen videos of Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman doing a squat with 800 pounds and an incline leg press with 2,300 pounds for 8 reps. What I haven’t seen is the 2,000-pound leg press claimed by religious leader Pat Robertson.
The leg press emphasizes the quadriceps, especially the vastus lateralis. The advantage of leg presses is less stress on the lower back because the back is stabilized. As such, people with lower back injuries or medical conditions that make squatting painful, such as scoliosis, can often perform the leg press without discomfort. Because of the stress of heavy back squats on the lower back, to get enough work on the legs many powerlifters include leg presses. Among the powerlifters who have reportedly performed leg presses are Steve Goggins, who squatted 1,102 pounds at 242 pounds bodyweight, and Andy Bolton, a superheavyweight who squatted 1,213 pounds.
The biggest concern with these machines is being careful not to allow the weight to be lowered to a point at which the lower back is rounded at the bottom – compare this movement to the harmful stress that occurs by performing a rounded-back deadlift. This is one reason you should only use machines that require you to start with your legs straight, as you can determine exactly how far you can bend your knees safely. Conversely, if you start the exercise with knees bent (as used to be the case with the jungle gyms that were popular with high schools in the ’70s), you have a tendency to jerk the weight and create adverse pressure on your lower back.
Hack Squat. The hack squat, a favorite of Mr. Olympia competitors Tom Platz and Milos Sarcev, has much greater hip involvement than the leg press. One EMG study showed that compared with the squat, the hack squat movement produces similar effects on the vastus lateralis and more strongly works the glutes and biceps femoris (the hamstring muscle involved in knee flexion). When it comes to involving the lower back (erector spinae), the hack squat produces less involvement than the squat produces but more than the leg press.
To be truly effective, machine hack squats require strong development of the vastus medialis muscles and extremely good stability of the knee joints. Unfortunately, less than 5 percent of trainees fit in that category, and therefore relatively few people can make significant gains from machine hack squats. Hack squats are effective only when they are performed over a maximal range of motion. However, trainees often compromise on range due to any number of reasons, such as laziness, a low pain threshold or the need to show off how much weight they can pack on the bars. For any or all of these reasons, they practically guarantee themselves poor results.
I find machine hack squats to be more effective when you rise progressively on the balls of your feet during the descent. Once you reach the bottom position, concentrate on pushing off the balls of your feet to further activate the vastus medialis muscles. As you ascend, progressively lower your heels to the platform. Also, you should avoid hack squat machines with a short backrest as they will not adequately support the lower back (and with some of the popular ones in the 70s, the backrest was so short that the pelvis would roll under and hyperextend the spine).
Hip Thrust. The hip thrust is similar to the angled back squat, but the athlete faces the machine. It has been a popular exercise among football strength coaches, as they believe it is more similar to the positions that occur in tackling. The same safety precautions apply with the hip thrust as with other exercises performed on the hip sled machines. However, because the back is not supported in the hip thrust, it is much easier for the back to flex.
Leg Curl. The first leg curl units included an apparatus called an iron boot. This was a metal boot that was attached to the feet, and a bar that passed through a hole in the boot allowed additional weights to be attached. Gravity would come into play and ensure that the leg curls were performed from a standing position.
The leg curl units with iron boots were followed by a machine with a flat surface, so that you would perform the leg curls from a prone position. This type of leg curl machine had a problem in that it caused hyperextension of the lower back. You could reduce the problem by placing a rolled-up towel under your hips and concentrating on tightening your abs to stabilize the pelvis, but this wasn’t a foolproof solution. Eventually these machines were replaced with a V-shaped bench that minimizes the pressure on the back. Other back-friendly options are to use the standing, seated or kneeling variation of leg curl machines. At the Poliquin Strength Institute I have eight different leg curl machines with both cable and plate-loaded options. This amount of variety ensures complete development of this important muscle group.
If only for the variety they offer to keep your motivation high, machines have a legitimate place in the gym. And while they may not transform you into The Hulk, machines do provide a way to work your muscles while recovering from whatever damage you’ve done by pushing yourself too hard in sports or in everyday life.
Lou Ferrigno's timeline of massive muscle