When strength training, is it better to use machines or free weights?

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When strength training, is it better to use machines or free weights?

October 7, 2009

WeightsThe great weight (training) debate

When it comes to strength training, there has been much discussion and debate over which training tool is more effective- strength-training equipment (machine-based exercises) or the use of free weights (dumbbells exercises).  The reality is each has its advantages….and disadvantages. Let’s discuss the pros and cons-

Weight Machines-

Pros:

  • Easier and safer to use- The fact that machines work on a fixed path makes it easier for individuals to learn and execute the movement with correct form, even when fatigue starts to set in. This can be a big safety plus, especially for those who are new to strength training.

  • Less intimidating- With pictures and instructions often posted right on the equipment, it makes the process of knowing what the exercise is designed to do (i.e., what muscles it works) and how to properly execute the movement much less nerve racking.

  • Saves time- With the way machines are set up at most gyms, you can usually move from one machine to the next with relative ease. Also, changing the resistance is as simple as moving a pin.

  • Specific focus- When compared to free-weights, certain machines are more efficient at isolating a specific muscle or muscle group. This is especially important when rehabbing from an injury or when focusing on strengthening a particular body part.

Cons:

  • Limited possibilities- Many machines are designed with only one exercise in mind, which means if you’ll need to use multiple machines to get in a complete total body workout.

  • Size does matter- If you are shorter or taller than average, you may find that certain pieces of equipment are not as accommodating in meeting your unique size needs. The good news? Many machines have adjustable components to accommodate the varied heights of gym goers. The bad news? You may find yourself spending a considerable amount of time adjusting equipment, especially if you are unfamiliar with the equipment and/or are unsure what the appropriate settings for your height are.

  • Predetermined path- While this serves as one of the machines advantages when it comes to ensuring proper form, it also is one of its weaknesses, as the fixed movement of the machine makes it difficult to work the stabilizer muscles  as well as to work the body in different planes of motion.

Free-weights-

Pros:

  • More functional- With free weights, you are able to complete movements in different planes of motion, allowing you to more closely mimic movement patterns used in specific sports, as well as movements performed in daily activities.

  • Incorporates stabilizers- In using free-weights, your body is responsible for creating and supporting the range of motion of each exercise, allowing for the involvement of the stabilizing muscles which are often neglected when using machines with a predetermined movement path.

  • Versatile- A total body workout is well within your reach, as free-weights give you the ability to perform a wide variety of exercises that target various muscle groups.

  • Convenient- Free-weights are inexpensive, portable, and take up very little space, which makes them a great option for at-home exercise.

Cons:

  • Lack of support- Since free-weights do not provide the support that machines do, learning how to properly perform an exercise takes more time and skill, and often requires some instruction when using them for the first time.

  • Risk for injury- Training alone with free-weights can lead to injury if you’re not using proper technique. Since free-weights can be easily swung using momentum instead of being lifted slowly and with control as they are intended to, individuals may find themselves using other parts of the body when performing an exercise (i.e. using the back when performing a bicep curl), especially as the muscles begin to fatigue.

  • Difficult to isolate- Free-weights require very precise technique when performing an exercise, which can make targeting and isolating a particular muscle difficult.

How do I know which option is best for me?

Generally speaking, if you are new to strength-training it is a good idea to begin with weight machines until you become more comfortable with the movements. If you are a more experienced exerciser, you may wish to use free-weights, as they offer more versatility in terms of exercise selection.

Overall, when it comes to strength-training the best option is to use a combination of free-weights and machine-based exercises, as together they can add more variety to your program and result in greater training benefits.

Need help with technique? A personal trainer can help you learn proper form and select exercises that are in line with your personal fitness goals.

Free-weights have you confused? Visit our exercise library for pictures and detailed descriptions of an assortment of free-weight exercises that you can do at home or in the gym.

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