In 1957, Mr. California Harold Zinkin had the idea to make weightlifting more accessible to a wider group of people than bodybuilders. He came up with a piece of equipment that was comprised of several stations: the first Universal machine. Because Universal weight machines have multiple stations and allow you to perform exercises for most muscle groups, the workouts can be designed for circuits, full-body workouts or to focus on specific muscle groups.
How Universal Machines Work
Universal machines are comprised of four stacks of weight plates, one on each side of a square metal frame. Each plate weighs either 5 or 10 pounds, with steel rods running through the stack to keep the plates in place during use. A cable is attached to the top of the stack and runs through two or three pulleys. A pin is placed under the desired amount of weight in the stack, and various accessories can be attached to the free ends of the cables to simulate different exercises such as lat pull-downs, triceps push-downs and bench press. A bench is included for exercises requiring one, such as the bench press or bicep curls.
Multi-station machines such as Universals are safer than lifting with free-weights, especially if you're working out without a spotter. You don't have to lift several heavy plates to load a Universal machine in preparation for a set. The weight stack is already in place, so all you have to do is insert the pin under the amount of weight you want to use. Also, when you're in the middle of a set, if the weight becomes too heavy for you, you can drop the weight with little if any risk of injury. That's not possible with free weights, as it could cause harm to you or anyone else in the immediate area.
Convenience/Ease of Use
Because of how easy it is to change weight on the Universal machines, they are useful for people who work out regardless of their fitness goals. Bodybuilders and power lifters use them to warm up before moving to their free-weight workouts, and others with less specific goals who just want to get in shape or maintain fitness perform entire workout routines on them. Not needing a spotter is another plus. If you're working out at home alone or alone in the gym and no one is available to help you, the safety factor that the Universal machines offer gives peace of mind knowing you have less chance of sustaining a workout-related injury.
When Zinkin conceived of the idea of his Universal weight machine, along with creating equipment that was safe and more efficient in size, he wanted to make a machine that would work all major muscle groups. That is why multiple stations are the central focus of the Universal machine. The different stations are constructed to allow the user to perform different exercises to target everything from legs to back to arms and more. Another plus with these multi-station units is the ease in which a circuit workout can be completed. With all of the weights and accessories right there in one place, you can quickly move from one exercise to the next with minimal rest between, allowing you to keep your heart rate up and move swiftly through a circuit.
Universal Machines or Free Weights?
In the end, both free weights and weight machines are beneficial to a workout no matter what your fitness goals are. They are especially effective as part of a home gym, as minimal space is needed to house them in comparison to the amount of space you'd need for the array of equipment required to perform all of the exercises that the Universal can. In a health club, although you might start out using a Universal machine when you begin to get in shape, if your goals include massive muscle or strength gains - such as for power lifting or bodybuilding - you'll want to at least add free weights to enhance your workout regimen and reach your objective.