The weight room has gone high tech. It is amazing to go to a commercial fitness show and see the array of computerized exercise machines, rowing machines that allow you to compete against a computerized rower, and machines that “remember” and automatically provide the right resistance for you. Are these technological marvels going to make you twice as strong, in half the time, with less work? No!
Weight machines come in a variety of designs that can be overwhelming to even an experienced weight trainer. Some incorporate variable resistance so that the resistance increases progressively throughout the range of motion of the exercise. Machines can provide resistance by using weight stacks, weight plates, air, rubber bands, and hydraulic fluid. Some provide resistance only during the active phase of the lift (concentric), while others provide resistance during both the active and recovery (eccentric) phases of the exercise. Among the latest innovations are machines that provide resistance while the lifter is in a standing position. These machines, made by companies such as Life Fitness, not only work the target muscles but also force other muscle groups to stabilize the rest of the body to complete the exercise. You can increase strength on almost any weight machine if you exercise on it regularly and consistently.
Exercise machines are the preferred method of weight training for many non athletes because they are safe, convenient, and technologically advanced. All you need to do is to set the resistance (usually done by placing a pin in the weight stack), sit down on the machine, and start exercising. You don’t have to bother anyone for a spot (assistance) or worry about a weight crashing down on you. Many people can work out in a small area. Also, free weights tend to twist in your hands when you try to balance them, which can cause blisters and calluses, whereas weight machines require little or no balancing, so beginners find the machines easier to use.
Some weight machines vary the resistance during the exercise—the weight is heavier as the exercise progresses. The theory behind this feature is that the stress on the muscle is more uniform as it contracts through its range of motion. It is not known whether this is superior to the resistance supplied by free weights for gaining strength and muscle size.
Few skilled strength-speed athletes train on machines. Their programs center on three main exercises: presses (bench press, incline press, etc.), pulls (cleans, snatches, etc.), and squats. Explosive lifts, such as pulls, are difficult or impossible to mimic on machines. Machines restrict you to a few movements, whereas many exercises are possible with free weights. Free-weight exercises, such as cleans, squats, and standing presses, require coordinated use of many joints and muscles. Many coaches believe that increased power for sports movements is better achieved by doing large-muscle, multi-joint free-weight exercises rather than machine exercises that isolate specific muscles.
Popular weight machines are expensive to buy and maintain. You can buy an elementary free-weight set at a small fraction of the cost. However, to equip a gym with a full array of free-weight equipment, including Olympic weights, dumbbells, and racks, is also expensive. So, don’t base the choice between weight machines and free weights on cost alone.