Which is better? Training with free weights versus machines

When it comes to strength training, fitness professionals and exercise enthusiasts are often faced with the dilemma of choosing between free weights or machine-loaded weights. Both options have their benefits and can contribute to achieving desired strength goals. So, let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of free weights and machines, and try to determine the best approach.

Is it better to use free weights rather than machines?

The ongoing debate regarding the superiority of free weights over machine-loaded weights has always been a topic of interest among health professionals. While both methods can be effective, several factors should be considered when deciding which approach to incorporate into training programs.

benefits of free weights vs machines

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Benefits of using Free Weights over Machines

Free weights aren’t simply limited to dumbbells but also include barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and sandbags and these items can be very useful in a strength training program.

  • Improved Stability and Balance:
    Using free weights requires increased muscle control and stabilisation of the body, engaging the core muscles and improving overall balance. This increased demand for stabilising muscles helps develop functional strength that can be transferred to real-life activities and other sports.

  • Enhanced Range of Motion:
    Free weights allow for a greater range of motion compared to machines. This flexibility allows users to perform exercises that mimic natural movements, promoting better muscle activation and joint mobility. On the contrary, machines limit the user to only the available range of motion and often work in single planes of movement.

  • Muscle Activation and Coordination:
    Free weight exercises often include compound movements, requiring the activation of multiple muscle groups. This engagement leads to improved muscle coordination and overall functional strength development.

  • Engages Stabiliser Muscles:
    Free weight exercises engage stabiliser muscles that support the main muscle groups being targeted. This helps create a more effective strength training routine, reducing the risk of muscle imbalances and injuries. For example, a chest press with dumbbells requires use of the shoulder stabilisers as well as the primary pectoral and triceps muscles, even on an incline bench. Whereas a machine-based chest press requires a push from the pecs and triceps only. Improved stability is important, especially for athletes. Think of an AFL player taking a mark, with their arms in an overhead position, where shoulder stability is imperative.

  • Versatility and Variety:
    Free weights offer a wide range of exercise options and variations, providing endless possibilities for creating diverse workouts that target specific muscle groups or movement patterns. This is especially relevant when considering home training or clinics/gyms with limited space. A complete set of dumbbells takes up minimal space and provides infinite options for exercises. Whereas most machines are only able to be used for a single exercise, meaning multiple machines are needed for a balanced strength training regime.

Benefits of using Machine-Loaded Weights over Free Weights

  • Safety and Stability:
    Machines offer in-built stability and support, making them suitable for strength training beginners or those recovering from an injury. The predetermined movement patterns of a machine reduce the risk of incorrect form and provide a safer environment for training. This can be useful even for experienced gym goers at the end of a training session when muscles are fatigued.

  • Isolation of Muscle Groups:
    Machines allow for the targeted isolation of specific muscle groups, making them valuable for bodybuilding or rehabilitation purposes. By minimising the involvement of secondary muscles, machines can effectively isolate single muscle groups. It is also useful to be able to isolate muscles that might not be as dominant if using free weights. For instance, a squat is most commonly performed using either dumbbells or a barbell, activating the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. However, if someone is quad-dominant, their technique will result in the glutes and hamstrings not being targeted. This is where machines may be useful e.g., using the hamstring curl and/or hip extension machine after a squat session to ensure all desired muscles get a workout.

  • Easier Progression and Weight Selection:
    Machine-loaded weights often have smaller weight increments, allowing for easier progression in resistance. This can be beneficial for individuals who require precise and gradual increases in intensity.

  • Convenience and Ease of Use: Machines are generally easier to use and require less technical skill or instruction compared to free weights. They offer a straightforward setup, making them ideal for busy clinics or fitness facilities where multiple users need to navigate equipment quickly. This is also convenient for gym goers who are trying to complete a workout in a short amount of time such as on their lunch break, as there’s no setup and pack-down time required.

  • Reduced Risk of Injury:
    With guided movements, machines offer a reduced risk of injury caused by dropping or mishandling weights. They provide a more controlled environment that can be particularly beneficial for beginners or individuals with limited mobility or balance issues.

  • Improved 1 Rep Max: Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2010(1), found that in trained males those who exercised using Hammer Strength machines achieved a higher 1RM for chest press, shoulder press and bicep curl, than those who performed the same movement using free weights. The researchers deduced that by being able to isolate the primary muscles the machine-based group were able to achieve increased strength gains.

Ultimately, the choice between free weights and machines depends on the individual’s fitness goals, experience level, and specific needs. While free weights are more useful in improving stability, muscle activation, and functional strength, machines offer a safer and more controlled environment for beginners or those focusing on muscle isolation and rehabilitation. To optimise training outcomes, using a combination of both free weights and machine-loaded weights should be incorporated into a well-rounded strength program to allow for a variety of exercises and ensure the development of strength, balance, and muscle coordination.

Always consult with a qualified fitness professional or strength and conditioning coach to tailor training programs to individual needs and goals. Remember, the key to success lies in adopting a well-balanced approach that considers the advantages and disadvantages of both free weights and machines.

References:

Lyons, Thomas; McLester, John; Arnett, Scott; Thoma, Matthew. Specificity of Training Modalities on Upper-Body One Repetition Maximum Performance: Free Weights vs. Hammer Strength Equipment. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(11):p 2984-2988, November 2010.

Thanks to Caroline Jones for this article.

Caroline is a physiotherapist who is passionate about using exercise as medicine and getting patients moving, especially those living with chronic conditions.

She is currently undertaking postgraduate research, studying the effects of exercise on women following treatment for gynaecological cancer and consequent lymphoedema. She also holds a Level 3 Certificate in Personal Training, owns a CrossFit box with her husband, and enjoys being a below-average runner.

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