Free Weights or Machines?

Filed in Diet & Exercise by on December 4, 2013 0 Comments

Exercising in the gym

I am asked this question all the time: “Should I use free weights or machines in the gym?”

Well, there is good reason why gyms have such large free weight areas, which consist of barbells, dumbbells, and weight benches, and a significant number of weight machines—both methods are useful for gaining muscle tone and strength. To help you decide which to utilize, I will provide the key advantages of each.

The key benefits of free weights are:

  1. “Balancing” the weight – Machines generally call for you to move the weight in only one plane of motion, whereas free weights force your muscles to balance the weight in all planes, which is much more challenging and promotes better muscle growth.
  2. “Compound” movements – Compound movements are exercises that involve more than one joint, such as the squat, which flexes both the hip and knee joints. Compound exercises tend to be more demanding than “simple,” one joint movements, such as the bicep curl (elbow joint only). Free weights provide a much fuller array of possible compound movements than machines.
  3. Functionality – While machines generally call for movement along a fixed path, free weights allow for a more natural motion that conforms to your body’s everyday, functional movement. For example, a leg press machine works the legs in a very specific and not entirely functional plane; a free motion barbell squat uses the legs as you would in everyday life, such as when you reach down to pick something up off the ground. As you age, it is especially important to maintain this natural, full functionality of movement.
  4. Variety – The number of different exercises that can be performed with free weights, using combinations of muscles and joints in varying planes of motion, are infinite. Machines, by their nature, are much more limited. Varied exercise promotes muscle growth and can make your workouts more interesting.

Key advantages of machines are:

  1. Easy to use – Because most machines work on a fixed path and have instructions and diagrams posted for proper use, they are easier to use than free weights.
  2. Save time – A workout consisting of moving from machine to machine is quicker than a workout utilizing free weights, since there is no need to “devise” your next exercise, add plates to a barbell, or choose a specific dumbbell.
  3. Lowered risk of injury – Since machines offer instructions on how to use them and operate on a fixed plane, they are safer than free weights.
  4. “Training around” an injury – If you have a weightlifting injury, or are in pain for some other reason like an accident, the very specific movement path offered by machines may allow you to still exercise the injured muscle. The use of free weights, with the need to balance the weight, might be difficult or impossible.
  5. “Drop sets” – When you complete a set of repetitions of an exercise, and then immediately afterward do another set of the same exercise with a slightly lighter weight, this is called a drop set. It is a great way to add intensity to your workout. Drop sets are much easier to perform with machines since all you have to do is move the pin to a different weight position to do the drop set.

In conclusion, beginners generally should use machines, since they are easy to use, safe, and save time. If and when you are ready to advance to using free weights, you might want to have a personal trainer help show you how to properly use them, to avoid injury and get maximum benefit.

Intermediate and advanced exercisers will get better and faster results by training with free weights. However, even advanced weightlifters can benefit from machines, especially for training around an injury, adding intensity by deploying drop sets, or just for variety.

Older people should mostly use machines, but they should also consider incorporating free weights into their workout, since their use mimics the natural, functional movements required for everyday living.

I know this is not likely for most of you, but I’ll say it anyway: Happy Weightlifting!

About the Author ()

TIM MCINTYRE retired in 2004 from his position as president of Applied Systems after facilitating a successful sale of the company. At only forty-six years old, he made the unusual decision to fully retire to pursue other interests and simply enjoy free time. As a hard-driving Type A personality, this turned out to be a significant challenge for the Notre Dame and University of Chicago-educated MBA, CPA, and Certified Cash Manager.

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