Not ready for the free weight room? This total body workout routine uses the most common weight machines at the gym to give your entire body a great workout in under 60 minutes.
Total body workouts (also known as “full body workouts”) are a great way to build muscle, burn fat, develop core stability and strength, and cut down on your overall time in the gym. Generally, total body workouts are most effective when they are built around compound, multi-joint exercises that use free weights like dumbbells and barbells.
But not everyone feels comfortable in the free weight room, and if you are just starting a resistance or weight training routine, it can take some practice to learn how to perform free weight exercises with good form. Weight machines can provide a way for newcomers to get a feel for basic form and movement, build a nice strength foundation, and eventually feel more comfortable transitioning into free weight exercises.
Incorporating weight training machines into your workout can also benefit advanced trainees as well, since machines allow you to go with heavier weight than you can typically use in a free weight lift. This can be useful for breaking training plateaus. And because weight machines don’t require you to swap out plates, you can typically move through your workout more quickly — a plus if you are pressed for time.
So by popular demand, I’ve created a version of my free weight full body workout that is adapted to give you a total body workout using weight machines alone. Actually, this workout uses a combination of multi station weight training machines, cable exercise machines and some body weight exercise equipment like chin/dip stations. With a few exceptions, the same rules and guidelines of that total body workout apply to this version. We’ll recap those a bit later.
But first, let’s take a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of using weight machines, instead of free weights, as part of a total body workout routine.
Advantages of Weight Machines for Total Body Workouts
There are several advantages to substituting weight machines for free weights in a total body workout:
- Less experience required: Because weight training machines are designed to lock a person into proper form, you can start weight training with little or no instruction. This also lets you establish a good strength foundation prior to tackling the free weights. Many people, especially those who are new to weight or resistance training, find that they are “shaky” (literally) even on machines. This can be a real issue with free weights, since a lot of coordination and balance is required during the exercise. Starting with machines can help alleviate some of that. You can always move to free weights later.
- Ability to use heavier weight: Weight machines don’t require you to balance the resistance during the execution of the exercise. This allows you to lift heavier than with free weight equipment. This makes machine exercises a great “change-up” even for experienced lifters.
- Faster workouts: Not having to rerack weights or swap or add additional plates during exercise reduces the down-time between exercise sets, allowing you to use your time more efficiently to actually lift weight. If you are strapped for time, a total body workout on machines can easily trim off 5-10 minutes from your workout.
- No spotter required: Weight machines are “self-spotting”, so you don’t need to have a partner present during your workout. This can be especially useful for advanced trainees who may want to go heavier, but don’t have a workout partner to assist during heavy lifts.
Disadvantages of Using Machines for Total Body Workouts
- Doesn’t develop core strength as well as free weights: Free weight total body workouts — because of their emphasis on things like squats, deadlifts and standing military presses – tend to naturally encourage better core development than machines. This is because they rely on the lower back and abs to stabilize the body during exercise. Weight machines, on the other hand, do most of the stabilization for you.
- Less recruitment and development of smaller stabilizer muscles: With free weights, you are required to balance the weight against resistance during the exercise. This calls smaller stabilizer muscles into action. In fact, when people switch from machine weights to free weights, they often comment that they feel a different kind of soreness than with the machines. This is because more stabilizers are recruited during free weight movements. Exclusively using machine weights for extended periods of time can create imbalances between the major muscles and minor muscles, which can stunt overall strength and development, as well as encourage certain types of injuries. The key here, is the term “extended periods.” Eventually you will probably end up changing up to free weights, so the risks here are minimal.
- Doesn’t allow for variations in movement: Everyone’s body is built slightly different. Machine weights are designed to enforce consistent planes of motion during an exercise. This can be good from a basic form perspective, but it also can force people into certain movements that can stress connective tissue. Free weights, on the other hand, allow the exerciser to make subtle adjustments in the lift to better accommodate their physical idiosyncrasies.
Check out this article for a more detailed article on the advantages and disadvantages of free weights versus machine weights.
Can I Really Get A Good Total Body Workout With Machines?
If after reading these benefits and drawbacks to free weight machines, you might be asking yourself whether you can really get an effective total body workout with weight machines.
The simple answer is “yes.”
While there are clearly some benefits of free weights that you don’t get with a machine workout, on the balance, you will be pleased with the results. After all, it’s more important to include weight training in your workout routine – whether on machines or free weights — than to not include it.
The 10 Rules of Total Body Workouts
For the most part, the same guidelines of a free weight total body workout apply to the machine weight version. Just to recap, those guidelines are:
Rule #1: Do only one exercise per muscle group.
Because you’ll be exercising every major muscle group during a total body workout, you will want to limit yourself to one exercise per muscle group. While you might be tempted to throw in a second exercise, try to avoid it. Not only do additional exercises extend your time in the gym (negating one of the main benefits of a total body workout,) but they may leave you too fatigued by the end of your workout to perform the remaining exercises — especially the more demanding leg exercises.
Rule #2: Do not perform the same exercise, for the same muscle group, two workouts in a row.
It’s important to work the muscle with a slightly different movement during each subsequent workout. For example, if you performed dumbbell shoulder presses on Monday’s workout, you’ll want to perform For example, if on Monday you used the seated shoulder press machine for shoulders, during your Wednesday workout (workout #2), you will want to perform a different shoulder exercise, perhaps cable front raises. Your goal by weeks end will be to have performed three different exercises for each muscle group. This ensures that the muscles are worked from different angles each workout, which will improve your overall development and strength.
Rule #3: Limit any given exercise to three sets per muscle group (an initial, light warmup set is okay, however.)
Because total body machine workouts will have you performing as many as 27 sets of various exercises by the time your 60 minute workout is completed, your overall set volume may be actually higher than if you have been on a split routine. Performing more than three working sets per exercise increases your risk of overtraining, and will over-extend your time in the gym. Additionally, by the time you’ve completed your three-day workout cycle, you’ll have performed a total of 12 working sets for each muscle group. This should be more than adequate for most trainees, regardless of experience level.
Rule #4: Do not perform a total body workout routine two days in a row.
Providing enough rest and recovery time between each total body workout is critical, since you’ll be working every major muscle group in a single workout session. This places more demands on your body and central nervous system, so you need to give yourself at least 48 hours recovery time between total body workouts. If you still want to hit the gym seven days a week, perform cardio on the non-weight training days, or break your ab workouts out and do them on the off days along with the cardio.
Rule #5: Choose machines that encourage compound movements
While it’s not as easy to perform compound exercises (exercises that require at movement at two or more joints for execution of the the exercise) on weight machines, it is possible.
If you have cable machines available (especially FreeMotion exercise machines), these machines can closely replicate free weight movements. Chest press machines, leg press machines, lat pulldowns, overhead shoulder press machines and pull-up/dip stations all allow you to perform compound exercises. Whenever possible, avoid machines that isolate muscle groups — things like leg extension or lying hamstring curl machines, back extension machines or ab machines.
Rule #6: Use a weight that allows you to perform between six and eight reps.
You can play around with the rep ranges to emphasize strength (lower reps, higher weight), muscle size or endurance (lower weight, higher reps — as high as 20 per set), however, this total body workout uses rep ranges that target both muscle size (hypertrophy) and muscle strength.
If this is your first experience with a total body workout, try to utilize the 6-8 rep range (go no higher than ten reps per set) to build a solid foundation. After about six weeks, you can substitute a lower rep or higher rep workout to change things up and keep your progress rolling.
Rule #7: Eat smart, often and at the right times
Because total body workouts are intense and place extra energy demands on your body to fuel both your workout and your recovery, you will want to make sure you are paying extra attention to what you eat — especially your pre- and post-workout meals.
Try to eat a balanced diet, made up of 5-7 small meals (including healthy snacks) spread as evenly as possible across the day. Those meals should contains plenty of protein, some healthy fats from things like olive oil and nuts, as well as slow-digesting sources of complex carbohydrates (things like oatmeal, whole grains, etc.)
Try to eat a small meal with slow digesting carbs and lean protein one hour before your workout. Follow your workout up as soon as possible with a fast digesting source of protein, whey protein and some simple carbs. This combination will help with the post-workout recovery process.
Rule # 8: Reduce Rest Time Between Sets
Because of the volume of sets associated with total body workouts, you will want to minimize the rest time between sets if you want to get through the workout in under 60 minutes. In other words, try to keep moving. This is also beneficial for post-workout fat loss and can help keep your metabolism amped up during the circuit. Limit rest time between sets to no more than 60 seconds, if possible. Or, try performing another exercise for a different muscle in-between other exercise sets (this is known as a super set.)
For example, if you just completed a set of chest presses on a chest press machine, instead of resting on the machine for 60 seconds, immediately move to the pull-up station and perform a set of pull-ups for your back. Return then to the chest press machine and perform your second set of chest exercises. If you workout at a particularly congested gym, this may not be possible without losing your machine. If that’s the case, then simply go with the shorter rest period approach.
Super-setting or keeping your rest periods to under 60 seconds will keep your heart rate elevated, which is good for fat burning, and will allow you to complete this workout in less than 60 minutes.
Rule #9: Watch the order of your exercises
Yes, order matters. Since you are training all of your major muscle groups with a total body workout, you’ll need to pay attention to the order in which you perform some of the exercises. The prevalence of compound movements in total body workouts means that you’ll not only be calling on the main muscle group you are targeting, but also a smaller stabilizer muscles, to successfully execute the movement.
Generally, you’ll want to stay away from working smaller muscles like triceps and biceps early in your workout, since they are heavily recruited during pressing and pulling exercises — things like chest presses, shoulder presses, pull-ups and rows. If you perform tricep or bicep movements first, these smaller muscles can be pre-fatigued and give out early during the large pressing and pulling exercises. This may cause you to fail early, and not fully fatigue the muscle you are actually targeting.
It’s also a good idea to leave ab or lower back exercises until last in your workout (or at least until after demanding leg exercises like leg presses), since your core is heavily recruited to stabilize and balance you during these types of movements. This is less of a concern with total body workouts that rely on machines, since core recruitment is less than with free weights. Still it’s a good practice to get in the habit of, especially if you plan on switching to free weights eventually.
Rule #10: Change it up!
While initially you should try to follow the order, exercises used and rep and set ranges of this total body workout routine as closely as possible, you’ll eventually need to make changes to keep growing. Performing the same workout routine, with the same exercises, for months on-end is a surefire way to hit a plateau fast.
It’s a good idea to change up any workout routine — whether total body or split routines — every six to eight weeks. The changes don’t have to be dramatic — sometimes simply changing the rep ranges, rest periods, order of certain exercises (taking into consideration some of the things discussed in Rule # ) or performing a different variation on a given exercise, is all that it takes to jumpstart your workout again.
After about six weeks on this routine, you can even try something known as adulating periodization. This is actually just a fancy name for changing your workout up each session to emphasize a different goal. For example, one workout you would perform your exercises in the strength range (4-6 reps) and the next workout, lighten the weight at perform as many as 20-25 reps for each exercise instead. This has been shown to be extremely effective at preventing training plateaus, as well encouraging more complete development and overall fitness.
Make Sure Your Using Your Exercise and Training Log!
To maximize your results on this — and any workout — make sure to keep track of your exercises, reps, sets, weight used and any other pertinent information (rest times, diet notes, etc.) in your exercise log. Keeping an exercise log is one of the keys to making ongoing gains in muscle strength, mass and endurance.
It’s difficult to accomplish these goals unless you are gradually increasing the stress and work placed on your muscles during the total body workout. This requires you to try to increase weight, sets or reps during each successive workout (or at least week-over-week.)
Since this total body machine fixes your sets at three, you’ll encourage progression primarily by increasing the weight you use within the 8-10 rep range.
To achieve this, you’ll need to know how much you lifted in your last workout, as well as the reps. The only way to be sure is to record it in your exercise or workout log or journal. It’s critical not to skip this step. One of the main reasons people don’t make progress in the gym is because they don’t actually know what they lifted during their last workout. This means they typically lift the same amount of weight — or even worse, less — than their last workout. Because they aren’t constantly challenging their muscles with more weight or work, their progress toward their fitness goals stalls. Read this article on why you should keep an exercise log for more background.
Okay, now that we’ve gone over the ground rules, let’s actually get to the total body workout itself.
The Answer Fitness 60 Minute Total Body Workout for Weight Machines
A few comments on this workout.
I’ve built this workout to mimic a free-weight total body workout as closely as possible, but with machines instead of dumbbells or barbells.
One of the challenges of adapting a total body workout to weight machines is that in some cases, there just isn’t enough variety in weight machines available to perform a different exercise for each muscle group in each successive workout. This is especially true for shoulders, biceps and triceps, since many gyms will only have one type of machine available for these muscle groups. For some variation, you can experiment around with changing your hand positioning on the grips to emphasize the muscle differently.
To solve the variety issue, I’ve included a fair amount of cable machines, because they do a pretty good job at replicating some of the balance and coordination benefits of free weights.
Rather than assume that your gym has all of the cable machines necessary to perform these exercises, I’ll assume that they don’t. For this reason, I’ve tried (whenever possible) to provide an alternative machine exercise for each cable variety. Simply substitute this for the cable exercise (make sure NOT to do it in addition to the cable exercise.) In some cases there just isn’t a good substitute, so you may find yourself repeating the use of certain machines (especially for arms and triceps.) It’s not ideal, but it will work in a pinch.
Also, I’m a big fan of pull-ups and dips and included them in this workout, even though the technically aren’t machine exercises, but body weight exercises. Performing them will require that you have a pull-up/dip station or pull-up bar available at your gym. If not, I’ve included some alternatives, although I would highly recommend the bodyweight versions if you have the equipment. If you can’t perform a pull-up or chin up on your own, use the weight assist available on a pull-up/dip station or have someone spot and assist you until you can do a few on your own.
You’ll also find the Smith Machine in this workout. While I think the Smith is generally overused in the gym, it can be effectively used as a substitute for barbell squats and lunges. That’s the only place you’ll see me recommend it in this workout.
Finally, if you find that you are having difficulties getting through this workout in under 60 minutes, you can break out the ab and lower back work and perform them on an in-between day. Performing cardio on in-between days can be a nice one-two punch for fat burning, so if it’s more convenient for you to do your ab and lower-back work on cardio days, feel free to do so.
Unless otherwise indicated, for all exercises use a weight that causes you to “fail” between 8-10 reps per set. Perform 5 minutes of light cardio and stretching prior to the routine. Also, you can perform one light-weight warm-up set (not reflected in the sets in the routine below), and three working sets for each exercises.
NOTE: If you’re not sure what all of these machines are, check out the visual guide to common gym weight machines I’ve put together.
Workout #1 (Day One) Exercises
Chest Press Machine: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Pull Ups (Can be performed on a pull-up station with assist or a traditional pull-up bar): Perform as many pull-ups as you can for 3 sets.
(Substitute Exercise: Cable or Lat Machine Pulldowns)
Seated Overhead Shoulder Press Machine: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Seated Leg Press Machine: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Seated Calf Raise Machine: 15 Reps for 3 Sets
Bicep Curl Machine: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Tricep Pressdown Machine: Perform as many dips as you can for 3 sets.*
Back Extensions (performed on 45 degree back extension bench): One Set of 15**
Swiss/Stability Ball Ab Crunches: 20-25***
Rest and Recover for at least 48 hours.
Workout #2 (Day Two) Exercises
Dips: Perform as many reps as possible for 3 sets*
Cable Rows: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
(Substitute Exercise: Seated Machine Rows)
Cable Front Shoulder Raises: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Smith Machine Squats: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Smith Machine Standing Calf Raises: 15 Reps for 3 Sets
Cable Bicep Curls: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Cable Tricep Pressdown: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Back Extensions (performed on 45 degree back extension bench): One Set of 15**
Hanging Leg Raises/Roman Chair (Abs): Perform as many as you can for 3 sets***
Rest and Recover for at least 48 hours.
Workout #3 (Day Three) Exercises
Pec Deck Machine: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Lat Cable Pulldown: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
(Substitute Exercise: Lat Pulldown Machine)
Cable Side Shoulder Raises: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Smith Machine Lunges: 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Seated Calf Press (Performed on Leg Press Machine): 15 Reps for 3 Sets
Reverse Bicep Curl Machine (Palms down): 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Cable Press Downs (performed with palms up on the bar) 8-10 Reps for 3 Sets
Back Extensions (performed on 45 degree back extension bench): One set of 15 **
V-Crunches/Jack-Knife Sit Up (Abs): Perform as many as you can for 3 sets.***
* As it becomes easier to perform dips with your body weight, add additional resistance by holding a light dumbbell between your feet (in the case of parallel bar dips), or have someone place a light plate across your legs on bench dips.
** Increase resistance on back extensions by holding a light plate or dumbbell over your chest during the movement.
*** Increase resistance progressively during ab crunches by holding a plate or dumbbell across your chest. For hanging leg raises/Roman Chair leg raises or V Crunches, place a light dumbbell between your feet.
Additional Total Body Workout Notes:
Some additional comments about this workout:
I’ve thrown in some isolation exercises for the biceps and triceps. In my full body workout with free weights, these are optional. In this total body workout that uses weight machines, you’ll want to include them because the use of machines limits the amount of supporting work placed on your triceps and biceps.
In terms of lower back and abs, I’ve included three ab exercises that will ensure that by the third workout, you’ve worked out both your upper and lower abs. I haven’t included any oblique work, but you could substitute an oblique exercise in for the V-crunches/Jackknifes.
For the back extensions, don’t perform this exercise on the machine that you strap yourself into — instead use the 45 degree back extension bench. You’ll typically find it in the free weight area.
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