The answer to this question depends on where you are at in your fitness levels as well as what you are trying to accomplish. In this post we’ll cover the benefits of both machines and free weights and when to incorporate these tools into your training program.
The main advantages machines provide are stability and safety by essentially locking you into one particular position and range of motion. This also provides the additional advantage of allowing you to easily isolate one muscle group or body part at a time. Reasons to incorporate machines into your workouts include:
- You need extra stability to perform an exercise (such as with the elderly or
recovering from an illness that has left you in a weakened state).
- You are recovering from an injury that prevents you from using other equipment or from performing large, compound movements (such as a broken bone or sprained ankle).
- You are looking to isolate a particular body part (such as with a body-builder style workout).
- You are looking to add additional volume to your workout without overly taxing your body (after completing your large, compound movements).
The primary advantage of free weights is that unlike machines, you aren’t locked into a particular position. You have the ability to handle the weights differently on each side of your body, allowing you to move in a more natural state rather than being forced into a particular position or range of motion. Free weights also require more muscle control which essentially means your body has to work harder to stabilize itself. Incorporating free weights into your workouts will:
- Allow you to perform the larger, compound movements which work more muscles at a time.
- Provide greater challenge to your core stability and strength.
- Let you to work each side of the body independently (to help strengthen a weaker side and again, challenge core strength).
Generally speaking, people make the most progress in their overall strength levels by prioritizing free weights over machines. For example, If you decide you want to work legs by using the leg extension machine, this puts you in a seated position and locks your legs in place so you are only working your quadriceps. If instead, you took the same amount of time, and performed the same amount of reps and sets doing squats with free weights, you would not only work your quadriceps, but also your calves, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, back, biceps and shoulders. As you can clearly see, using free weights provides a greater “bang for your buck” when it comes to exercise performance. Machines absolutely have their place, but if you have no limitations, and you aren’t looking to isolate individual body parts, it’s best to prioritize free weights over your use of machines.
Two other great modes of strength training not yet discussed include cable machines and barbells. Although cables are still technically “machines,” they function more like free weights as they allow you a greater range of motion than machines typically do, they don’t lock you into one position, and they often allow you to work individual sides of the body.
Although barbells do lock you more into a particular position, they are fantastic tools for gaining overall strength as you are able to lift more weight than you ever could with free weights or cables. Like free weights, barbells also challenge your core stability, allow you to work several muscle groups at one time, and also allow you to work individual sides of the body.
How should you apply this information to your personal workouts? If you are able-bodied, prioritize using free weights, cables and barbells in your fitness routine, and incorporate machines as needed depending on your goals, fitness levels and current health state.
The information found on this blog is based on my own personal thoughts and opinions. I am not a doctor or registered dietician. Please be sure to consult your health care professional before starting or changing any fitness or nutrition program.
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