The goal of any S&C program for athletes should be injury reduction first and foremost. The more time an athlete is on the park, the better. In saying this, our focus during training should be to train movements and not muscle groups.
When using machines, it’s likely that you’re targeting specific muscle groups. Exercises such as the leg press, pec deck and smith machine provide a rigid environment for your body to move in line with. You’re UNABLE to move in your natural patterns. Therefore, the stability component is taken away.
While you’ll still get bigger and potentially a little stronger (specific to that machine), you should remember the goal of your training. If your goal is to improve sports performance and reduce injury risk than training on machines is counterproductive.
Machines and pulling systems do have their place in early stage rehab or as part of your accessory work. But even when going through your rehab it’s important to transition to more ‘functional’ movements as soon as possible.
Some people view machines as a ‘safer’ alternative to lifting free weights but you’re not actually teaching the body to move effectively. In doing so, you increase your risk of injury during competition – making it a more dangerous path in the long run.
“The best and simplest way to introduce instability is to simply ask an athlete to perform and exercise standing on one leg.” – Mike Boyle. It’s important to learn how to balance on one leg, to produce force on one leg, and to resist force on one leg. This will A) improve your efficiency of movements during competition (sprinting, changing direction, jumping) and B) help reduce injury risk.
The bulk of your stability training should be: squatting, hinging, lunging, pushing, pulling, carrying and learning to breathe and brace correctly (the more single leg work, the better). The isolation or accessory work in your program should focus on the midline, hip and shoulder stabilisers. And avoid machines as much as possible, it’s not safer, and it is counterproductive long term.