Free Weights Versus Machines
I work out in a weight lifter’s gym. There are rows of machines and racks after rack of free weights. Whether you’re sweating it out at home or at the gym, you’ve got to decide whether you want to use free weights, machines or a combination of both.
We’ve probably all heard that if you’re serious about weight lifting, you should be using free weights. However, there’s a place for machines in the life of every bodybuilder!
What’s the Difference?
The simplest definition of a weight machine is “an exercise machine used for weight training that uses gravity as the primary source of resistance and a combination of simple machines to convey that resistance to the person using the machine.”
For the purposes of this article, machines are defined as objects that move on two planes, whereas free weights move in all three dimensions. A pec deck is a machine. A dumbbell, weight plate, kettlebell, and a gallon jug of water are examples of free weights. One’s own body weight is the ultimate free weight!
There are two popular types of weight machines, stacks and plate loaders. We’ll discuss cable/pulley machines later.
Stacks generally have labeled plates, each of which has a hole bored through the middle to hold a pin. The pin’s placement determines how much weight you lift. You’ll grab the handle, bar, or strap and proceed with your chosen exercise.
Plate loaders are the more primitive machine, and are also significantly more customizable. They supply only the moving apparatus, and you load up the plates with whatever you’re using. They’re best employed after you have some idea of what weight you need on the stacks to avoid injury.
Benefits and Cautions with Machines
1. Machines are generally safe, and you develop good habits using them. You don’t have to worry about straying significantly from the proper range of motion (ROM)—making them ideal for beginners and those recovering from injuries. There’s also no concern about dropping a bar on your toes.
2. They isolate specific muscles for more work. When you use free weights, many muscles are recruited to maintain balance and allow the targeted muscle to work. When you use a machine, you’re less likely to use other muscles because the purpose of the machine is to single out one muscle for work.
In particular, biceps are great for machine work because standing or even sitting biceps use the abs and back significantly. When we take that aid away, the work becomes harder, which causes the muscle to tear more, meaning it gets bigger as it repairs itself. And that, folks, is the whole point of weight lifting.
If you have lower back problems, leg presses are great because you’re still getting the work of a squat without the back strain. While squats are one of the best exercises on Earth, they’re useless if you injure yourself more doing them.
3. If you’re really working in the gym and getting big, you’re eventually going to run out of weight. The sad truth is that 400 pounds of weight on calf raises won’t cut it forever. Heck, I know guys who add plates atop the machine and then use it for shoulder work!
4. You develop uneven strength when you only use machines. Since you’re not engaging the smaller stabilizer muscles and are adding progressively more weight to larger muscles, you can injure yourself easily over time.
Benefits and Cautions with Free Weights
1. Free weights allow you to develop greater overall fitness. One thing we often fail to realize is just how many muscle groups are engaged when lifting weights.
For example, when you do bench presses, you’re using your pecs, shoulders, triceps, and forearms to push. You’re using your abs to stabilize the body on the bench, and often the hamstrings will give a little push at the top when you’re burning out reps.
Consider that if most exercises allow you to engage many muscle groups, you’re getting a significantly better muscle overload many times over and keeping the heart rate higher for the duration, affording you a shorter overall workout for at least the same results.
You’re also placing a greater load on your joints, tendons and ligaments, thereby strengthening them. As they get used more, they necessarily become stronger (if done moderately and safely).
2. You can easily change the ROM for any given exercise. If you’re working biceps head on, you may choose to angle the weights out at any point in your workout. These small changes engage the muscle fibers from a different direction, causing two wonderful things to happen.
First, you’re working previously unused muscle fiber, which means more muscle growth in the new area. Second, your system becomes confused, waking it up from its comfortable sleep as it’s required to hone in on the new movement. Muscle confusion is a beautiful thing.
3. One problem people have with free weights is using proper form. It’s imperative that you have either a personal trainer or a gym employee show you how to execute exercises well to avoid injury. I can promise you that you do not want to rip a bicep due to ignorance or bravado.
4. It can be inconvenient to lift when you need a spotter. When I started doing bicep curls with a bar, I moved to a new weight. Besides the motivation my spotter provided to get that additional rep done, he also kept me from dropping that thing onto my soft pink toes when my muscles were just dead at the end of my third set.
Just imagine if you’re trying to do a bench press without someone and you’re trying something new. We’ve seen what can happen even to experienced lifters, and it can be deadly. It’s just not worth the risk to go it alone!
Benefits and Cautions with Cable Weight Machines
This guy is sort of the best of both worlds. The most popular at-home system is probably the Bowflex, though the early Nautilus machines were cable weights, too. At the gym, you may see FreeMotion branded products which are cable weights.
1. You get the flexibility and ROM of free weights with just a bit of control with a cable weight machine. Because of this, you can customize a workout in a controlled way, but still engage in the motions that suit you well.
2. You still use the stabilizer muscles that you fail to engage during a machine workout.
3. Probably the best reason to use a cable machine is that you’re getting continuous tension in the muscle. The force is working against you in both directions, so you’re getting a greater challenge with every single rep.
4. The one issue I have with the Bowflex and similar machines is the variability of the weight. When you’re at the top of the exercise, you’re at the top of the rod, and are therefore lifting less weight than you are at the peak of the movement.
As such, it’s impossible, without a degree in higher math, to determine exactly what you’re lifting at any given time and throughout an exercise. With free weights, you’re applying even resistance from the beginning of the motion until the end.
You can get a great workout with any combination of these methods. In fact, I’d recommend using all three, if possible!
I personally like to use free weights for just about everything. I like to go back and do hamstrings, quads and biceps on a machine to target those areas and get some extra size, as well as giving my back a break from the pain of squatting.
My gym only uses cables for chest and triceps, and I use those frequently because those are harder areas to develop and I like the extra workload I get from them. When used properly, you can get quite the burn in a very short time!