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Machines vs. Free weights Debate

Copyright Andy Fairclough

This debate has raged on in gyms for decades. Many find themselves lured in by expensive machines, drawn to their promises for instant success and supported by the claims of well muscled fitness models. Others completely shun the machines, and are drawn to dingy gyms and clanking 45 lb. plates. The truth is that both machines and free weights have benefits and drawbacks, and understanding this will lead to greater success in they gym.

Let’s start off with free weights. Most seasoned lifters would agree that free weights should be the centerpiece of a good weightlifting program, and I would tend to agree. The most obvious benefit free weights offer is the incorporation of supporting muscles into a lift. For example, when you bench press you mostly use your chest, shoulders, and triceps, but to keep the bar upright and balanced you use a whole host of smaller supporting muscles. These muscles would be completely overlooked in a machine that worked out your chest. One of the most simple and yet powerful truisms accepted by exercise physiologists today is that you become better at a specific movement by practicing that movement. In other words, a basketball player can do as many squats as he wants to improve leg strength, but the best way to get better at a jump shot is to do a jump shot.

Where am I going with this? Well, even though a lot of weightlifters hit the gym for aesthetic reasons, they would like some of their hard earned strength to carry over into real life. For example, there are definitely machines in many gyms that will work out your lower back, your legs, and your arms, but where is the machine that simulates the motion of you lifting a heavy rock off the ground? Working out with these machines will help you somewhat with a task like this, but only to a questionable extent.

In this example, the best approximation is the deadlift, which, because it stimulates the supporting muscles, will be far better at helping you lift the rock. To summarize the problem with machines, there is rarely, if ever, a time outside the gym where you will need to do that exact motion. Contrast this with free weights; though with free weights there are generally accepted ranges of motion, there is plenty of variation in technique to make your muscles more “usable.”

Maybe some of you out there don’t care at all about practical applications. Should you completely abandon free weights? Let’s go back to the idea of supporting muscles. Not only does the stimulation to these muscles help with your practical strength, but they also look good! The stimulating muscles are the muscles that you are never quite sure how to work out, but they look really cool. Think of the crazy muscles exhibited by Van Damme or Stallone; those are the supporting muscles.

The last benefit of using free weights is greater overall stimulation of large muscle groups. There are certain free weight exercises, such as rows, pull-ups, bench presses, and squats, that no machine can duplicate. Why-Because these exercises require that a large amount of muscles work together to lift a weight. You can work out your quads with a leg press machine, but you could never top the effectiveness of the squat for a quad workout. Exercise physiologists have even measured muscle stimulation with things like squats vs. free weights, and almost without fail the free weights wins out. Now that I have completely bashed machines, let’s go over the benefits they offer. The most important benefit machines offer is that they are a great introduction to weightlifting for beginners. The machines can get you into basic shape, and can teach you how to lift properly. You can quickly construct a workout just by looking at the diagrams of the machines and figuring out what muscles each works out. However, keep machines as your introduction to lifting. Only once you are going for a few weeks will you want to construct a workout that incorporates more free weights.

Another benefit machines offer is the ability to do a safer version of a “dangerous” or advanced exercise. For example, there is a squat machine that guides the bar but lets you do the rest of the motion. If you don’t have any experience with squats, this is a great introduction and starting ground. There are plenty of other examples of exercises that would be best learned on a machine and then done with free weights. Another example is particularly striking. Many people can’t do one pull-up, or can only do a few, but there are machines that let you do assisted pull-ups. This type of machine should definitely be utilized, because unassisted pull-ups are one of the best possible back exercises.

To summarize, a great workout will incorporate both free weights and machines in combination. Try to make the center of your workouts free weights, but use the machines for more specialized lifts if necessary. One word of caution though, do not be lured in by the promises of infomercial style machines that promise to give you a total body workout. A lot of these machines use complex pulley systems, rubber bands, or are just shoddily constructed. If you want to construct a home gym, your first investment should be a free weight rack and a sturdy bench.

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