I am a huge advocate of barbell and dumbbell training. If you've read any of my previous articles and workouts, this fact should be apparent.
This article is a first for me. I've never written about machine training, primarily because I haven't used a machine in a very long time.
In 2007 I made the switch to training at home. During this time I learned to maximize my muscle and strength building efforts using only a minimalistic amount of equipment. This year my life changed and I started traveling more. Because of this, I have been training at commercial gyms several times per week.
It has been an enlightening year to say the least. I have re-learned the value of machines (there I said it). While I do not think machines are better than barbell and dumbbell movements, they can be an effective mass building tool. I find that for bodybuilding, after the big compound movements have been performed machines are a solid choice as "finishers and blasters."
The following protocol is one of my favorite ways to utilize machine training. "Run the stack" training starts off slow and easy, and quickly builds into an intense, sweat-drenching rest-pause session that is great for hypertrophy (building muscle).
Run the stack - machine training tool
A "run the stack" machine exercise is comprised of 2 components:
- Building sets. 7-8 building sets of 5 reps each.
- Drop sets. 2-3 drop sets, focusing on 4 second negatives.
Performing building sets
You want to perform a total of 7-8 sets of 5 reps each during this component. Your last set should be a near max effort, meaning the last couple of reps will be difficult to complete.
Start with a lighter weight on the stack. You want to move up a plate on the stack for each set. For some machines this increase will be 10 pounds, and for some 15-20. It doesn't really matter how the machine stack is set up as long as you as performing 7-8 progressively more difficult rest pause sets.
Rest between sets should be kept to a minimum. Release the weight, move up another 10-15 pounds on the stack, and begin your next set.
The first time using this protocol you may perform too many, or too few sets. That's ok. Just make adjustments as needed. There is nothing magical about my advocacy of 7-8 building sets. If you find 6 works better, go with it. If you enjoy more intensity and want to perform 9-10 building sets, have at it.
Effort and consistency are the keys here, along with progression of weight over time.
Performing drop sets
After you have peaked, or reached a stack weight that is near-maximal and hard to complete 5 reps with, it's time to perform a few drop sets. How many drop sets you perform is up to you. I like to use 2, but if you have the energy you could do 3-4 if you wish.
Take your peak weight and decrease it by about 20 to 25%. This means that if you peaked at 200 pounds, your drop set weight should be about 150 to 160 pounds.
Drop sets are performed using 4 second negatives (eccentrics). After completing each rep, slowly return the weight to its starting point in a controlled manner. It doesn't matter how many reps you can perform during each drop set. The point is to push yourself close to complete muscle failure.
Rest about 60 seconds between each drop set.
Run the stack - back example
Let's take a look at an example back workout. You've just hammered out barbell deadlifts and dumbbell rows, and decide to move on to V-bar handle pull downs as a finisher.
You know that the maximum amount of weight you can move is about 200 pounds for 5-7 reps. Because your machine stack increases in 10 pound increments, you decide to start your "run the stack" session with 130 pounds. Here is how your rest-pause building sets of V-bars would look:
- 130 x 5 reps
- 140 x 5 reps
- 150 x 5 reps
- 160 x 5 reps
- 170 x 5 reps
- 180 x 5 reps
- 190 x 5 reps
- 200 x 5 reps
Remember to restrict rest between sets to a minimum.
After you reach peak on your building sets, it's time for some slow negative work. Decrease the weight and rest about 60 seconds before performing your drop sets.
In this example we will drop the weight by 20%. Remember that your negatives (eccentrics) should be about 4 seconds each, and that each set should be take close to failure.
Your energy levels are decent, so you decide to hammer out 3 drop sets. Here is what they look like:
- 160 x 9 reps
- 160 x 7 reps
- 160 x 6 reps
Run the stack - leg curl example
You've just knocked out squats, leg presses, stiff leg deadlifts and are looking for a good finisher. You decide to hop on the leg curl and crush your hamstrings by running the stack.
The most you can do with leg curls is 100 pounds for reps. Starting with 10 to 20 pounds on the stack seems silly, so you opt to begin with 30 pound leg curls. Your leg curl building sets go like this:
- 30 x 5 reps
- 40 x 5 reps
- 50 x 5 reps
- 60 x 5 reps
- 70 x 5 reps
- 80 x 5 reps
- 90 x 5 reps
- 100 x 5 reps
Following the building sets you feel gassed. You decide to close out your hamstring work with only 2 drop sets using 4 second negatives. You drop the weight to 70 pounds:
- 70 x 9 reps
- 70 x 7 reps
Remember 2 things:
- Tools like this should be used after your heavy compound movements have been completed.
- For best results, you should try to get stronger over time.
Progressive resistance is king. If you continue to use advanced protocols like this but never focus on increasing weight, you will not see the results you are after.
Also, note that the use of straps on back machines is encouraged when applicable. Never let your grip strength hinder the growth of your lats, traps, etc. If your grip strength is sub-par, then train your grip each week.
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Good article as usual, Steve. As you were saying, "running the stack" should be done after you complete your free weight compound workout. What if you're temporarily in a place with very light DBs (up to 50lbs) and regular machines? Would just running the stack serve as a good substitute for your normal free weight workout or would you include the DBs somehow too?
When I have to train at a gym with limited dumbbells I do volume and rest pause with a dumbbell exercise, then I "run the stack" on a machine.
For example, when I was at the Arnold Classic several years back, my hotel gym only had dumbbells up to 50 pounds. I trained shoulders by doing 8 sets x 10 reps on 50 pound seated overhead presses, then ran the stack on machine laterals.
My rest between dumbbell sets was restricted to 30 seconds.