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Which is better to use - machines or free weights? What's the difference? What gets the most results?
As a personal trainer, I am frequently asked these questions. However, there’s not exactly one simple answer for every person. For one client, I may recommend something more machines, while for another I may prescribe mostly free weights.
It all depends on your fitness levels and goals. In this blog I will provide pros and cons for each to help you decide what is best for you.
Before we start, let’s define these two types of weights.
Machines: A piece of equipment you sit on or in, or stand in, that defines a set path of movement for you. Usually there is a stack of weights and pulleys that lift the weights when you push or pull the handles on the machine. These include the leg press, seated chest press, seated triceps extension, shoulder press, and many more.
Free Weights: Any piece of freestanding equipment that you can pick up and move in a variety of directions. These require you to work against gravity, and include dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, barbells, etc.
There are some pieces of equipment that don’t quite qualify as just a machine or just a free weight, such as cable machines and resistance bands. They are more similar to free weights because they don’t completely define the path of motion for you, but for our purposes in this blog, we will focus on just the two types of weights above.
1. Create a Specific Movement Pattern
If you're new to working out, machines will be a safer place to start for you. The fixed movements will enable your body to activate the intended muscles within the correct range of motion, which in turn will help progress the body quicker.
2. Minimize the Potential of Injury
Many beginners to working out don’t know the proper form for exercises, and machines take out some of the mystery.and help prevent injuries. Though injuries can't ever be totally prevented, they can be drastically minimized by a machine's preset range of motion and preset weights. Almost every machine has a name for the machine, such as “Shoulder Press Machine” and a diagram to show you how to perform the exercise. Just make sure you use it only as directed to reduce your chance of injury.
3. Don't Require a Spot
If you're looking to use heavier weights, machines enable you to go heavier without the fear of the weight falling, or your body fatiguing in the middle of a set. It's never wise to just drop the handle or grip portion of any machine, but in the case of your body failing (total fatigue), it will be much easier and safer to drop the machine grip relative to free weights.
4. Easier to Maintain Form
When you start to add more weight to your workouts, your form can quickly diminish. This means other body parts are being used to complete the task, thus minimizing the activation or usage of the intended muscle or body part. With machines, your form will tend to stay correct because of the fixed motion and the freedom to not have to complete a set with the fear of dropping the free weights on yourself.
With all of those benefits, maybe you’re wondering if you even need free weights. Keep reading, because free weights offer many benefits that weights don’t to help get you to your fitness goals.
1. Demand More from the Muscle
When you grab weights to do a bicep curl, there is nothing limiting your vertical, horizontal and rotational movements. This forces the body to control the movements of the weight which results in an increase in demand from the body.
2. Burn More Calories
As stated above, when muscles are activated, it requires energy, which is how the body burns calories. Therefore, when more muscles are activated due to the increased demand for control of the weights, you will burn more calories.
3. Add a Functional Aspect to Weight Lifting
When using free weights, you're forced to control the entire movement of the weight itself, which will cause other muscles to engage. The added activation of other muscles will differ depending on the exercises performed, but using free weights can add what is called controlled instability. For example, when using dumbbells to perform a chest press on a bench instead of seated on a machine, your biceps and a few back muscles also have to work harder to stabilize the weights against gravity during the movement. (Note, if you're using a weight too heavy based on your capabilities, you will over-activate other body parts, which negates the exercise and increases chance of injury.
4. Infinite Degree of Freedom
Machines help decrease injuries by limiting the range of motion for a specific exercise. For some, this can be too limiting. With free weights, you can adjust your body to find that perfect form that feels the best. We all have that machine we love to use because it feels great. This is most likely because your body fits on the machine in just the right way for that body part to be fully activated. No need to find a machine when using free weights, all you need is some weights and proper form.
5. Doesn't Require Fitting into a Machine
Though most machines are made for a wide range of height, not all machines fit us well. This can lead to activation of the wrong body parts, injuries and a lack of development in the intended body parts. With free weights, you get to set the movement pattern and thus ensure you are maximizing the full potential of working out your body in the correct manner.
Now you may be asking, which is truly is better, machines or free weights? What does the term "better" even mean? It depends on your starting point and fitness goals.
Generally speaking, for those newer to the gym, it is safer to start with using machines. This will help you understand better what your body can and can't handle which in turn will boost results. For those a bit more experienced in the gym, a combination of both free weights and machines is best. A consistently changing and progressing routine is ideal for results and one way of doing that can be to switch back and forth from machines to free weights.
Peter Han, NASM-CES, NESTA-CPT, is a private personal trainer in Valencia, CA. He has 12 years of experience in personal training and corporate gym management.