Controversy, Preferences, and the Facts: Free Weights vs. Machines

Suppose you belong to a gym. Chances are that the first thing they do is set you up on the machines. After all, it’s their bread and butter. Have you ever seen a gym that didn’t have these? You can get going right away on the circuit, and can avoid the free weight area where all the grunting is going on.

But, let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

  • Machines are easy, don’t require much learning, and you are allegedly put in the right position to work the desired muscle.
  • Machines can be a good starting point to help you figure out which muscles you are working since it is all spelled out on the instructions. And, if you do the whole circuit, you will end up working most of your big muscles in a balanced way (like biceps and triceps, hamstrings and quads, chest and back).
  • Machines can also be good if you are coming back from an injury, or are in physical therapy. They can also be good if you are getting on in years and need a lot of support because your balance and coordination are not what they used to be. That’s because machines put your body in one position so that you are just working mostly the one muscle described on the machine.
  • The problems come in because of all the things described above. Since machines let your body just sit there while you work one muscle group, the training doesn’t relate to how you use your body in every day life. In other words, it’s not functional. After all, how often in your life does someone else hold you in position so you can lift or move something?
  • When you use free weights, your body has more adapting to do. Free weights require you to use balance and coordination, and a bunch of other muscles to stabilize the movement. Most notably, you have to fire up your core muscles to support the movement. Machines tend to work the large, glamorous, muscles that we can identify on body builders. But, we have many, many, smaller muscles that are just as important to keep us moving well and injury free.

Now hold on…aren’t machines safer because they keep you in good alignment? Not necessarily. Machines use the average sized man (5’10”) as their standard. Even with adjustments, the result is not always stellar. In addition, you can still be bringing your default posture and alignment to it. You can slouch just as well on a machine as anywhere else. With machines as with free weights, or the rest of your life, you need to be aware of your posture and alignment to get the most out of your movements.

Here are a few more considerations about machines. If you have one side that is stronger than the other, it will not show up if you are using machines. With free weights you can work the weaker side a bit harder by doing extra reps in order to even things out. In some cases the machine can actually be bad for you, depending on the manufacturer and the design. Watch out for the trunk rotator, the lat pulldown, the leg press, pec deck, and the overhead press. Sometimes the machine is not providing the right movement path or the full movement path.

If you decide to work with free weights, these tips will help.

  • You can easily use your default mode unless you are paying attention. Set up with your best posture before you start any exercise. You can use a mirror to check this.
  • Start with a weight that is fairly easy for you so that you can make sure your form is correct and you are not calling in the wrong muscles to compensate.

So, free weights vs. machines. Sound like a minefield? Not really. Each method has their strong points. All it takes is a bit of learning and vigilance no matter what you are doing. Ask questions, pay attention to your posture and alignment, and you will get the most out of either path.

P.S.  I should really come clean.  I have a heavy bias toward free weights.  Do you have a preference?  Please leave a comment below.

© 2016-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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