In any commercial fitness gym you’ll see a combination of both free weights and machines. Some people use just free weights for their workout, some go from machine to machine to get their pump, and some use a combination of both. This creates the question: which is better for you?
Weight Machines – Pros and Cons
- Easy to learn and use – Most machines have a picture demonstrating its use, which for most machines is pretty self explanatory. This makes them easy to use on their own or with other machines to create your own circuit. If hiring a personal trainer is out of your budget, they are easy to figure out by simply watching the person ahead of you.
- Isolate muscle groups more efficiently – Since most of your body is pretty stable on most machines you are able to target the larger muscle groups more efficiently. This is beneficial to those who have a solid foundation and are looking to improve their physique by building bigger muscles.
- Allow you to train with heavier weights without assistance – If you are fairly inexperienced with proper technique when using free weights, it may be difficult to add resistance. Some machines will allow you to slap on extra weight without risk of injury. This may also be useful if you are pressing or squatting without a partner or spotter. (Note: proper technique is paramount before you need to worry about adding weight. Train smart.)
- May be useful for elderly populations and/or rehab – For someone that has a really low level of fitness and/or is recovering from an injury, machines may be the tool to get their strength up quickly and safely. Since machines isolate it may also be easier to work around certain injuries.
- Non-functional – Although machines will make you bigger and stronger, they don’t train complete human movement patterns that are necessary to, well, move. Perhaps the worst machine is the Smith Machine which locks you into place for heavy exercises like squats and bench and doesn’t take into account different body types, which is a recipe for disaster. Weight machines just don’t translate well into strength and fitness for daily activities, not to mention athletics.
- Neglect smaller stabilizing muscles – Since you are isolating target muscle groups, the important stabilizing muscle groups around the joints take a back seat. If you neglect these smaller muscles for too long, you run the risk of chronic injury and poor posture.
- May cause injury directly and indirectly – Although safer to use with lower levels of skill, it is still possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Overloading the same movement day in and day out is also an easy way to set yourself up for an overuse injury. Form is important and like anything else the danger is in the dose!
Who Should Use Weight Machines?
- Beginner – Someone who is very new to the gym and doesn’t know how to properly utilize the free weights just yet. Even though there are pictures on the machines I recommend asking for a personal trainer’s advice for proper use.
- Bodybuilders – When size and aesthetics is your main goal there is a lot of efficacy to using machines to pump up those muscles! For a better more well-rounded physique combination of both weight machines and free weights is recommended.
- Rehab – Machines may be an easy way to rehab an injury if you don’t have a physical therapist or trainer to work with you. Once you are feeling better it may be better to move to bodyweight exercises and take preventative measures.
Free Weights – Pros and Cons
- Allow you to train functional movements – This could be a topic on its own, but basically free-weights and bodyweight exercises have greater carryover to what you do in real life such as daily activities as well as athletics.
- You can use full range of motion – You have complete freedom to move around rather than being locked into a specific range of motion or pattern. This allows your body to do what it is naturally built to do, move.
- Place a greater demand on stabilizing muscles – Using free weights will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles while you are training. Will help to keep your joints healthy and fully operational when done properly!
- More bang for your buck exercises – If you have limited time to train and want to get a lot accomplished with few exercises then free-weights are the way to go.
- Allow for endless variation – With machines you are really limited to what you can do depending on what is available. With free weights, all you need is one dumbbell and you can do hundreds of different exercise variations.
- Train anywhere – Learning how to train with free-weights or body weight allows you to literally train anywhere since machines aren’t always available.
- Less expensive – Free weights are the way to go if you don’t have access to a gym since they are much less expensive than machines. You can easily build a killer gym at home for cheap.
- Takes some skill to learn proper technique – Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve than machines and you may need someone to show you proper technique. Having a trainer show you or reading a book on weight training may be the way to go. Take your time and try to avoid creating bad habits by copying others that have bad form (e.g. Youtube).
- Greater risk of injury when not done properly – When using bad form it is easy to move a bodypart or joint out of proper alignment and tweak something. This can cause injury so make sure you know what you are doing and use the appropriate weight.
- Need a spotter to lift heavy weight on squat or bench press exercises – Some exercises are difficult to improve on if you don’t have a training partner or which may slow down progress. At the very least you can ask a trainer to check your form and maybe give you a quick spot. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.
Who Should Use Free Weights?
- Most people – Pretty much anybody can benefit from using free weights properly to build a strong and lean body using a good program. It is important to build functional strength and muscle to be able to do the things you enjoy and stay active later in life!
- Athletes – To compete at high levels and remain injury-free, athletes’ bodies have to move synergistically and the best way to achieve this is to train the same way. A combination of free weights and bodyweight exercises is the way to go!
- Bodybuilders – The best way to get bigger is to get stronger and the best way to get stronger is through free weights. Once you build up your strength, you can add in some weight machines to isolate and ‘build’ specific muscle groups.
Rehab – Free weights may speed up the rehab process by adding in functional movements to get you moving and feeling better. They may also help you get back to the condition you