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One question that I have been asked a lot lately is the age-old
“Which is better… free weights or machines?”
Most of T&T’s readers seem to enjoy working out with some form of resistance. There are certainly pros and cons to each type of resistance training; ironically the biggest pros for one happen to be the biggest cons for the other. With today’s post I decided to break these down for you and give you my opinion as to which is the best. The answer just might surprise you…
1. It’s just that – free weight! The range of motion through which you can perform exercises while using free weights is literally endless. By getting creative with your posture and incorporating different positions (standing, sitting, laying down, etc.) you can create pretty much any line of pull for any muscle group. This is a phenomenal way to add variety to your resistance training.
2. Did I mention they are free weights? Studies have shown that your muscles are actually more active during a free-weight lift than a machine. This is largely because there’s no external stability guiding you through the motion of the exercise. The weight is free to move in all three of the X, Y, and Z planes of motion and therefore your muscles must stabilize these movements. For example during a free-weight bench press you’re not only utilizing your chest and arms, but your shoulders, forearms, and core are more active while trying to stabilize the weight.
3. Variety. You give me a pair of 20 pound dumbbells and off the top of my head I can think of about 15 different exercises that I can have you do with them. You get a huge variety of exercises with one small piece of equipment.
Pros of Machines
1. External support can be a good thing. When first starting out on a new exercise or initiating strengthening in a new muscle group, a lot of times your muscles need a little help. Sometimes the novelty of the motion can be the most difficult. Other times you’re working new muscles so they can be a little weak. If you find yourself limited by weakness or the difficulty of performing the motion then machines are an excellent alternative. They work wonderfully to provide a little external support where it may be needed.
2. They’re comfortable. The next time you’re in the gym look around at all of the machines. For the majority of them the user is seated in an upright posture and it’s the machine that modifies the weights accordingly (oftentimes via pulleys). Contrast this with free weights wherein you have to lay down, bend over, etc. You have to accommodate the weight to create these different directions of resistance. Now I’m not saying that laying, bending, accommodating in general is necessarily a bad thing; there are some great total body exercises that utilize this principle. It’s simply another factor to consider as we weigh our pros and cons. Sometimes an injury can prevent you from getting into a certain posture and the machines provide an excellent alternative.
So which is the best? Given the choice between free weights and machines, which one do I prefer? Well my answer is…
While I think that the pros of one certainly outweigh the cons of another, I do not see a resounding winner where the all the pros outweigh all the pros. Maybe you’re trying to lift some heavier resistance during a certain exercise – try it out on the machine. Maybe you’re really trying to work more on form through a certain movement – try it out with some free weights to kick on the stabilization muscles. My recommendation is use them both regularly- switch them up to give variety to your workout. Maybe one day is military press with dumbbells and a few days later you try the overhead press machine. Utilizing both free weights and machines in a regular training schedule is an effective way to generate some muscle confusion necessary for strength increases.
My challenge to you this week is to utilize these principles and mix up your workout. I challenge you to get on a machine you’ve never been on or perform a lift with free weights you’ve never done before.Try it out! I promise you won’t be disappointed! Do me a favor and leave a comment about your experience below – it’s fun to learn from each other!
Have any other fitness questions? You probably aren’t alone! Here are more answers to some of our readers’ questions…
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Have a great day!