Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Which Should I Use; Machines or Free Weights?


Both! In fact, you should use (or at least try out) all equipment available to you.
Both machines and free weights have advantages and disadvantages. Which you use will also depend on your primary goals.

Weight Machines

The Good:

(+) Machines are easy to learn and to use. Most even have a picture or directions attached to the machine itself. Or, just watch other people using the machine ahead of you. (I hesitated about adding that last sentence-I’ve seen some people do some very strange things on a machine) As the old saying goes: “When all else fails, read the directions.”

(+) Machines allow you to use more weight and or more volume without assistance. A spotter is often needed for heavy loads using free weights.

(+)Machines usually force you to use better form on any particular exercise (but not always)

(+) Machines allow better isolation on particular muscles or muscle groups

(+) machines usually allow you to work around certain injuries or disabilities

(+) In general, machines are usually safer from the standpoint that, if you get in trouble, the machine is not going to let you drop several hundred pounds on yourself.

The Bad:

(-) Machines usually don’t require you to balance or stabilize your body to any large degree. Therefore, you are not using or strengthening the stabilizing muscles surrounding your joints as much as few weights.

(-) Most machines require you to use the same path of movement day in and day out. This can lead to overuse injuries from repetitive movement (think carpel tunnel syndrome).

(-) Many older machines don’t allow you to adjust the path of the movement to your particular needs. (Height, length of the arms or legs, differences in shoulder and hip mobility)

(-) Machines are not as functionally useful for everyday movements nor for athletic movement.

Free Weights (Barbells, dumb bells, kettle bells, etc)

The Good:

(+) Free weights allow for a full range of motion. You are not required to use a predetermined path or pattern

(+) Generally better for improving strength by placing greater emphasis on the stabilizing and auxiliary muscles.

(+) Free weight training provides more functional strength for everyday life and athletics.

(+) Free weights are necessary when performing the major compound movements (Squats, dead lift, etc) though machines are available that mimic these movements it’s difficult to get the same results.

(+) Free weights are much less expensive if you are using a home gym and take up much less space.

The Bad:

(-) Free weights have a much higher learning curve than machines. Lifting heavy with free weights requires a certain amount of skill and training. Bad form with free weights can quickly lead to injury.

(-) Heavy free weight exercises require the assistance of a spotter or partner

You’ll hear the free weights are better for strength and functional movement and machines are better for body building. But the studies are in disagreement. I read a study recently indicating no difference in strength gains between machines and free weights. But the parameters of the study were a little fuzzy.

My opinion:

Both are helpful and beneficial.
There is little doubt that you can make faster strength gains with the compound lifts with free weights. But that may be because there are no machines that closely mimic the heavy compound lifts. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the future. There are some out there but they have a long way to go to be as effective as free weights.
Building mass using isolation (single joint) exercises is probably better on machines because the machines make it harder to cheat on the movement. Here the machines have an advantage.

So use whatever works best for your goals.

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