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Which Is Better – Free Weights or Machines?

June 9, 2014 3 Comments

Get-started-with-free-weights-for-a-better-physiqueFor the greater part of my career, I worked in gyms and thus had the convenience of being able to work out where I worked.  Every once in a while though I would visit a local competitor anonymously  to just workout without interruption but more so to see what other types of equipment they had to offer. Could there really have been much difference? Aren’t all gyms essentially the same when it comes to equipment? Cardiovascular equipment is relatively the same with a few added features and types here and there. With the exception of colors, manufacturers, or may be some slight modifications in design, free weights (plates, barbells, dumbbells, etc.) are essentially free weights. But where a lot of gyms would try to differentiate themselves would be in the amount and types of weight machines (aka resistance machines, strength machines, Nautilus, etc.). Over the years that grew into a greater, more prominent argument as opposed to just being the gym with the mostest. What were these resistance machines and were they superior to free weights?

In The Beginning

Resistance machine training has its origins dating as far back as the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s through the 1970s where companies like Universal and Nautilus began a movement of adding horizontal resistance by way of cables, pulleys, and cams to move weight stacks where it really took off. Nautilus became a household, generic name to describe all resistance machines when in fact Nautilus is the name of a particular company and product, much like Kleenex is used to describe tissue. The ease of their use and user friendly appeal launched a rise in their production and use through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. But as they say, what was old is new again and despite all of the technology that has created some amazing resistances machines, free weights still reign supreme when it comes to developing muscle. Or are they?

Building It Up

The primary reason anyone should be doing resistance training of any kind (free weights, resistance machines, body weight training, bands, balls, etc.) is for the maintenance and growth of lean tissue, a diminishing factor as we age. Sure, training with weights can be used to increase muscle size, strength, and power – and those are all positive results – but at its root, it’s about being stronger against the constant forces of gravity. In that essence, any external resistance on the muscles will do. But when it comes to building quality or functional (term that is used to describe mimicking or relevant carryover to daily living) muscle, free weights are superior. Here’s why.

King of The Mountain

Aside from their Neanderthal, caveman-like reputation, free weights are unattached, free movable objects that translate well to applied human movement, much like we encounter in real life. Free weights address and simultaneously train multiple planes of movement; teach how to deal with gravity in every and all positions; and teach how to manipulate physical elements, such as inertia, momentum and impulse.  Training with free weights can do all of that and due to its strong neurological component, it sometimes can provide result within minutes!  This is a very hard combination for any training methodology to live up to or compete with. Since resistance machines are generally fixed, unnatural positions, does that make them ineffective? Of course not and for certain populations (bodybuilders, rehab patients, etc.) they can be used as mode of training that isolates a muscle and provides a different stimulus to stave off physical and mental boredom. But in the real word, no muscle works in isolation and through free weight training proper lifting technique and stabilization mechanics are gained– both very important when it comes to moving through this life.

So are free weights superior to resistance machines? Yes. Does that make them a bad exercise choice? Absolutely not. Resistance machines have become an invaluable part of the strength, fitness, and conditioning fields and are what I like to call just another tool in the tool box. Remember, there is no such things as a good or bad exercise; just the application of the exercise.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

About the Author:

Jeff Harrison is a fitness coach based in Pottstown, PA. He received a BS in Exercise and Sport Science from Penn State University and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) and ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist (ACE-AHFS). Jeff's articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as consumer oriented websites and magazines.

Comments (3)

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  1. Kathy D says:

    I agree. Another point you didn’t address is that some machines even with all the adjustments don’t work for people due to their size. I could never use the bicep machine because of my size. The smallest adjustment was still too big but for a while I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to use.

    • Jeff says:

      You are correct. Most machines are designed around 175-180 lb male athletes that are 5’11”, not everyday people who are the target market and certainly not women, small framed or not. So even with your best effort, it still may be a loss in futility. Chalk up yet another advantage to free weights.

  2. Tom D says:

    The take home message is always the most important part of any written piece
    and you have emphasized it well. “Remember, there is no such things as a good or bad exercise; just the application of the exercise.”

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