Free weights and weight machines each have their advantages and disadvantages. Learn how to use both to get great results in the gym.
Few issues are more hotly debated among health and fitness professionals than whether free weights are better than weight machines.
There are, however, differences between the two. And understanding these differences can help you make better decisions about when each type of equipment is appropriate for your weight training, and how often you want to include them in your workout routine.
The Advantages of Weight Machines
Weight machines are often the first choice of equipment for people who are new to weight and strength training. And this is for good reason.
Weight machines by design encourage good form, because they limit the range of motion to the specified exercise you are performing. They also isolate the specific muscle group you are targeting by disengaging secondary muscle groups that normally are called upon stabilize the body during performance of an exercise.
If you’ve never performed a bench press (a free weight exercise), for example, you may not be familiar with how to align your arms properly in relation to your body in order to perform the exercise effectively and with minimal risk of injury. A chest press machine, on the other hand, will ensure that your arms are positioned correctly and will give you a sense for how the movement should be performed.
By starting out on weight machines, you can work on get a feel for the exercise, which can then be applied to a free weight workout.
Machine weights also tend to allow you to use more resistance, because you aren’t limited by the smaller (and often weaker) stabilizer muscles that are called upon to balance a free weight. This can help you make bigger gains in strength, and can help beginners establish a more solid base before moving on to more challenging free weight movements.
The Disadvantages of Weight Machines
The primary disadvantage of weight machines is that they don’t engage stabilizer muscles or develop core strength and conditioning as well as free weights.
Your “core” is the chain of muscles that stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder and provide a solid foundation for movement in the legs and arms. When you use machines, you don’t need to engage these muscles to balance your body. Over time, this can lead to weaknesses or muscle imbalances which can make you more vulnerable to injury. It can also create aesthetic imbalances in muscle size or definition.
Weight machines aren’t as effective in developing the smaller muscles and connective tissue that your body uses to balance resistance — for example, the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that help stabilize your shoulder. Because free weights require you to balance the weight during the movement, they can help you strengthen these critical muscle groups.
Finally, because weight machines isolate as specific group of muscles, your body doesn’t require as much energy to perform them as when you perform compound, free weight exercises that call on more than one muscle group to execute the exercise. So from a fat and calorie burning perspective, free weights require more energy which can help with fat loss.
The Advantages of Free Weights
Free weights such as dumbbells and barbells offer more flexibility and options in terms of movement and the different types of exercises you perform.
Many free weight exercises are considered “compound exercises.” A compound exercise is one that involves movement at more than one joint. This means it engages additional muscle groups beyond the primary one that is being trained.
For example, when you perform a dumbbell chest press on a bench, you engage not only your chest, but also your shoulders, abs, lower back and even legs to balance and stabilize yourself during the exercise. When you perform a chest press on a machine, the equipment does all of the stabilization and balancing for you, and isolates the movement so that it’s primarily limited to the muscle being trained.
Free weights also do a better job of accommodating the unique physical quirks that everyone has. No two people are built alike, and weight machines — because their motion is fixed — can force people into movements that are uncomfortable.
Free weights, on the other hand, allow you to make very subtle self-adjustments in the movement and your positioning, which increase your comfort and actually allow you to execute the exercise with better results.
This flexibility is especially important for people who have experienced injuries in the past, since machine weights can cause them to move the weight in a plane that aggravates their condition. Overhead shoulder press machines are infamous for this type of thing.
Free weights also allow you to try out different variations on an exercise.
Because you control the positioning of your body and the plane of movement, you can target the muscles differently depending on how you perform the exercise. And because you are calling on stabilizer muscles during the exercise, many people find that free weight training gives them better overall muscle development and definition than when using weight machines alone.
The Disadvantages of Free Weights
There are two primary disadvantages to using free weights.
The first is that people who are new to weight or resistance training may not know how to perform an exercise with proper form. Because free weights don’t force a plane of motion, people can develop bad form habits more easily with free weights than with machines.
This is why it’s often beneficial to practice a bit on a weight machine to get a feel for the exercise before trying the free weight version. It’s also a good idea to have a personal trainer or member of the gym staff show you how to perform an exercise with free weights. They can make sure you are using good form and executing the exercise properly. Failure to do this can cause injury or muscle imbalances.
Free weight also limit the amount of weight you can use. This can be a good thing, because it lessens the chance that you’ll lift too heavy for your current conditioning, but it can also hamper progress, especially for more experienced lifters.
What About Cable Weight Machines?
Cable weight machines can actually offer some of the benefits of both free weights and machines.
Unlike fixed-motion weight machines, cable machines allow you to adjust the range and plane of motion much like free weights. They also require you to stabilize the resistance during the motion, which is excellent for strengthening smaller stabilizer muscles and connective tissue and building more functional coordination between muscle groups.
Cable machines also have advantages over both machine weights and free weights because they encourage constant tension on the muscle through the entire range of motion. This can translate into better strength gains and improved muscle size and development.
Recently a number of fitness equipment manufacturers have developed cable machines that mimic free weight training. Freemotion™ is one of the best examples of this.
If your gym includes any of these machines, you should consider giving them a try. I’ve seen very strong individuals get a very challenging workout on a Freemotion machine.
The Solution: Use Both Free Weights and Weight Machines!
Variety is the spice of life, and the same holds true when it comes to weight training and making progress in the gym. Your muscles adapt very quickly to stress, and changing up your workout routine frequently ensures that you make progress and reduces the risk of hitting training plateaus.
If you’ve been working out almost exclusively with free weights, adding in a day of weight machine training in can help provide variety and challenge your muscles in new ways (for example, by letting you go a little heavier.)
Likewise, if you haven’t ventured into the free weight room yet, you might consider giving it a try, especially if you are looking for a new challenge.
Switching between weight machines, free weights and cable machines can not only keep your workouts more exciting, but it also helps you utilize the unique advantages of each of these types of weight training equipment, while minimizing the disadvantages that sticking to only one type of equipment has.
Tags: Exercise, Exercise, free weights, Freemotion, machine weight, Resistance Training, Strength Training, Weight & Resistance Training, Weight & Resistance Training, Weight Machine, Weight Machines