Should You Exercise With Free Weights or Machines?
Most gyms today contain different types of resistance training equipment. These broadly fall into two categories – machines and free weights. Often you will find the free weights in their own area of the gym, which is usually populated by some pretty large people, while the machines occupy most of the floor space and appear more accessible and somehow “friendlier”. So which equipment should you use to make best use of the precious time you spend in the gym? Here are some of the pros and cons.
Machines require less effort to use than free weights. You sit on the machine, select the weight you want to lift with a pin, and perform an easily learnt movement. It’s simple to change the weight on the stack (making machines very good for drop sets, see opposite) and there are usually illustrated instructions on the side of the machine to guide you through the movement.
Machines often place you in a seated position; however, very few real-world physical activities or sports are performed while sitting. Seated machines do little to improve the balance and stabilization you need for real-life strength.
Machines dictate the exact direction and range of your movement in a particular exercise. If you apply any force in the general direction required by the machine, it will move along its dictated path.
Machines train only the main muscles involved in a movement: this has implications on real-life performance and, vitally, to injury risk. Continually lifting through a restricted range of motion may lead to long-term reductions in flexibility.
Machines are designed and hinged to fit an “average” person. However, no-one is really average; machines that are not specifically designed to fit your body can generate dangerous shearing forces at your working joints.
Machine weights make you stronger at using machine weights.
Working with free weights takes some learning. Seemingly subtle variations in movements carried out with identical weights may produce very different results in terms of muscular development, and you need to invest time to learn the correct movement paths for different exercises.
In the majority of sports and day-to-day movements, forces are transferred through your entire body while you are upright. These natural types of movements are far better reflected in exercises that use free weights than those using machines.
Free weights can and will deviate from the “ideal” movement path, forcing you to correct and stabilize the deviation. If you do not perform a movement correctly, the weight will deviate from its path and you may not complete the lift.
Free weights train not just your main muscles, but also the many muscle groups that stabilize a joint. There is little more hazardous than a joint with incredible strength in its prime movers but little or no strength in the stabilizing muscle groups around it.
Using free weights allows for natural movements that are not constrained by the design of a machine. Carried out with good form, free-weight exercises are not only more effective but arguably safer than machine exercises.
Free weights make you stronger in real life.