The Free Weights vs Machines Debate
It seems as though every time I walk into a gym around the country, I see more and more new machines and gadgets that people are using in their workouts. Every time I see this, I find myself cringing.
It makes me so upset when I see an out of shape person doing the ab twist machine (or whatever it is called), thinking that they are actually going to start to see their abs by doing this machine.
Then there are those spending all their time on the isolated muscle machines (such as the machine chest press, machine shoulder raise, etc.)… What these individuals don’t realize is that they may be doing more harm than they are good.
I applaud these individuals for getting to the gym to workout, but I definitely don’t applaud them for what they are doing in their workout.
I will say there are a few times that machines can be helpful. For instance, those recovery from an injury, machines can be of big help in the recovery process.
Other than that, focusing on machines for longer than 1-2 weeks is never advised.
Why are machines so popular?
The reason machines are so popular is because they are very easy to use and understand, and are the least bit intimidating.
Especially for a beginner who heads into the gym for the first time, machines seem like the best option because they provide a description of how to do it and they are very easy to do.
Plus, machines can bring the burning feeling in your muscles to help make it feel as though you are getting in a great workout.
So what is the problem with machines?
There are a few major issues we run into when it comes to machines. The first is they keep you in one single plane of motion. This means none of your stability muscles are not being targeted, so your body doesn’t have to work as hard during the exercise.
Next, machines only target one to two muscles at a time, with most machines targeting just one. In the past, we have discussed that the more muscles you can activate in an exercise, the better.
For example, doing an exercise such as a squat, you activate your core, glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, etc. Doing this will bring far better results than simply doing a leg extension where you active just your quad.
When can machines be of help?
Machines can be of help in the very beginning of your lifting process, but again doing them longer than 1-2 weeks is not advised. The reason I say 1-2 weeks is because this is enough time for you to get your body and muscles used to the new lifting movements.
Machines will help you when first trying to get your muscles going (for those who have never lifted), but over time if you continue to work on machines, overuse injuries are very common.
When you are continually doing the same movements over and over, and doing them in the exact same plane of motion every single time (which you do on machines), your muscles, tendons, and ligaments start to get very worn down which will eventually lead to injury.
The machine to free weight transition period…
Another factor that comes into play is the transition from machines to free weights. Many who have been lifting on machines for a long period of time will find that injury can be common when making the switch to free weights.
With machines, your muscles are so used to doing the same pattern and motion while not using the stabilizing muscles. Once you make the switch to free weights, you are then forced to use your stabilizing muscles which you are no used to using.
So the injury happens when you break that plane of motion you are so used to doing causing your muscles to do something they are unfamiliar with.
This is also the reason that you will see people doing 10 reps of the full rack of weights on the machine bench press (let’s say 200 pounds), then when they go do the regular bench press they can barely perform 5 reps at 135 pounds.
Their stability muscles are so weak that they can’t keep up with the main muscle groups.
Functional Strength VS Structural Strength
Another major difference between free weights and machines is functional strength. Functional strength can be defined as an exercise that involves training the body for everyday activities. In short, they are exercises that will help everyday movements.
Free weight exercises greatly help with functional strength. They make everyday life easier because they allow you to move better and be stronger.
When using machines, you are not training for functional strength, but rather structural strength.
Functional strength directly correlates with our stabilization muscles. For example, if you were to pick up a box at home to move it upstairs, training for functional strength at the gym would be far more beneficial than training on machines.
The reasoning is simple: Free weight exercises build up lots of functional strength because you are focusing on activating as many muscles as possible with each exercise. Machine exercises focus solely on one single muscle group at a time and don’t take into account any stabilization.
When doing any kind of movements in life (walking up stairs, gardening, moving boxes, painting, etc.), it all involves functional strength. So the more functional strength you have, the stronger you will be.
The Verdict: Free Weights Vs Machines
From the evidence above, you can see that training with free weights far outweighs that of machine based exercises. From activating more muscles to better overall functional strength to less chance of injury. Free weights are better.
Please keep in mind that the first rule in lifting weights is safety. With that said, if you are not comfortable lifting free weights, then by all means start by using machines to build up some strength.
However, there is no reason why you can’t start by using 5-10 pound dumbbells and lift safely at the gym. No one says you have to start out lifting 100 pound dumbbells. Start slow and build up over time.
Better yet, instead of using the machines, start by using your bodyweight for your workouts. Do some push-ups, bench dips, bodyweight squats, lunges, etc. Then once you feel as though you have gained some strength, move into using the free weights.
If you want to start getting fit faster, you must get off the machines and start training properly. This means doing the right exercises and workouts.
So there you have it, the verdict is in:
Free weights over machines any day of the week!