I get the idea of low rep ranges for strength training. My question is, why are are most strength training programs limited to ohp, deadlifts, squat, benchpress? Why is there no use of machine?

In other words, does it make sense to tricep extensions, or bicep curls, for low reps to build strength? If not, why not?

  • It does make sense to isolate muscles if you’re looking for isolated strength/hypertrophy. That said, most strength isn’t used in isolation except for things like weightlifting comps. Oct 10, 2021 at 16:53

3 Answers 3


My question is, why are are most strength training programs limited to ohp, deadlifts, squat, benchpress? Why is there no use of machine?

Apart from time efficiency aspect - compound exercises train a lot of muscles at the same time - there are a few arguments for free weights and against machines (but note that machines can offer compound exercises, too!).

But first, let's be honest about the fact that there's a varying degree of chauvinism and prejudice against machines - "real men use free weights", y'know. Free weights are great, but machines do have advantages, too.

More importantly, though, there's the consistency argument. A barbell is a barbell, and a 100 kg barbell squat is pretty much the same regardless of what equipment you're using. Machines are much less consistent. Different models have different leverage, different pulleys, different angles etc. If you have two leg press machines loaded with the same weight, the actual resistance can be very different (and the relative difference may even change depending on where in the movement you are). It's not really a blocker if you're always using the same machine - you can still do progressive overloading - but if you have to go to a another gym or someone is hogging your favorite machine, knowing how to load another machine of a different make gets trickier.

A barbell is also very reusable. Along with some plates, a rack, and a bench, you can train your whole body, and this is equipment you'll find at pretty much every gym. If you write a machine-only whole-body program, regardless of which you machines you choose, a lot of gyms won't have all the machines.

A third argument for free weights is that they require a bit of balance, stability and coordination, so they don't only build strength. Machines are a lot more forgiving, so you do get stronger muscles (and more importantly, BIGGER muscles), but you do not necessarily get better at applying this strength in an everyday situation.

I do however think that if you are a very new to resistance training, machines are pretty good to get used to exerting yourself and building some basic strength/muscle. Once you've done that, you can move on to the somewhat more technically challenging free weight exercises. (Which isn't to say you should ditch machines altogether at this point - they can be great to add some extra volume when you're halfway spent!)

In other words, does it make sense to tricep extensions, or bicep curls, for low reps to build strength? If not, why not?

Yes, you can use isolation exercises to become stronger in that specific movement. How much this will transfer to other exercises will vary, so becoming stronger in, say, triceps extensions might not help you very much in other pushing exercises, such as bench press, or any triceps-using movements in your everyday life.

To sum this up:

  • Compound exercises will make you stronger and build more muscle per time spent, so prioritize them
  • Isolation exercises are best thrown in after the compounds to give prioritized muscles some additional training volume
  • Machines are...
    • ...bad, because they give you less balance, stability, and coordination training.
    • ...good, because they require less balance, stability, and coordination, so you can focus on just working your muscles.
    • ... hard to use in general strength-training programs, since machines which are ostensibly "the same", such as leg press, can be very different between different makes.

Most bang for your buck. But it also depends on which muscles you’re building strength for. If you want to build strength for your biceps, do biceps curl. If you want to develop your quad strength, do squats.

Free weights are “harder” because it requires dynamic stability. A chest press on a smith machine is easier because all you got to think about is moving the bar up and down. Compared to bench press with a barbell and weights, you need to actively “make sure” that the barbell comes down and up. Same goes for squats vs knee extension machines.

On a side note, compound exercises work involves more muscles, and also a to go for those wanting hypertrophy.

I also prefer compound exercises as it helps with developing your kinetic chain, giving a more “functional” translation to actions you do daily (the term functional can be interpreted differently according to context)


Strength is usually defined as "the ability of a muscle to apply force and overcome resistance or the amount of force a muscle can exert". The question is, how is this strength measured?

The typical strength sports are olympic weightlifting (snatch / clean and jerk), powerlifting (squat / bench press / deadlift) or strongman (many disciplines, mostly free weight). As you can see, these measure strength using (mostly) free weights. Considering this, it makes sense to use free weights in programs with a strength training focus.

Most strength focused programs therefore revolve around the three powerlifting lifts, plus often the OHP. This is definitely more accessible for most people than weightlifting or strongman. If you want to advance in those lifts and therefore improve your strength, it makes sense to mostly train them plus some accessories. This is why the programs focus on the four compound lifts you mentioned and mostly leave out machines.

So that's that about those lifts mentioned. In general, "why compounds for strength?": compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time , while isolations exercices and machines target specific muscles and don't require much stabilizing muscles. That's where I have to agree with first answer, you'll just get more "bang for your buck" doing these. E.g., bench pressing will automatically strengthen your triceps, too.

All that being said, of course you can train to specifically get stronger at bicep curls, tricep extencsions, etc. It will just not do too much to increase your overall strength, since these exercices target smaller muscles that can be worked with compounds. As for machines, you will get stronger muscles of course, but lack stabilisation strength and strength sport specific skills. The question here is, can you really be considered as what is generally perceived as "strong" if you leg press 300kg but can't squat 100kg?

  • if all you wanted was big biceps, would it make sense to focus on curls and machines?
    – user33409
    Oct 12, 2021 at 14:29
  • Yes, if you want to grow a specific area, isolation and machines definitely make sense. Also, if you want to maximize muscle growth/size, you should train more for hypertrophy than strength, so mostly in the 8-12 rep range. Oct 13, 2021 at 7:20
  • @nz_21 if all you want is big biceps, then you're interested in hypertrophy rather than strength, and so a strength program would not be a good choice. Oct 13, 2021 at 11:55
  • Interesting, thanks for the response. I'm actually a bit surprised y'all think isolation would work at all. I'm a noob so I don't know much, but I understand is that for someone with sh*t genetics the only for the body to evoke a response is strength training with compounds
    – user33409
    Oct 13, 2021 at 15:30
  • First, don't focus too much on genetics mate, anyone can build decent muscle with the right training/nutrition and consistency. Second, iolation is good to bring up specific areas, e.g. get bigger biceps, but not really overall strength, so it also has it's place. As a beginner, go for mostly compounds though, as explained. Also, I get a feeling you're a bit confused about strength vs hypertrophy/muscle mass, I suggest reading up on that so you train the right way for your goals. Oct 14, 2021 at 16:18

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