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Training For Strength, Free Weights Or Machines

January 29, 2014

Training with free weights or resistance machines is one of quite a few subjects that leads to plenty of arguments in the world of weight training. Which method is most effective, which technique leads to the fastest gains? Is there a ideal answer to the question? Read on and come to your own conclusion

To dive head first into the argument, the considered more effective form of weight training is through using free weights. This is essentially because they allow you to perform the exercise through a variety of movements and altered techniques. They also allow the contribution of a second muscle group to execute the exercise in comparison to machines; however, it can be claimed that machines permit you to isolate each muscle group more. Consider a barbell standing shoulder press for example. To achieve the technique perfectly you would be required to hold your core as tight as possible whilst accomplishing the move, thus incorporating your core and shoulders at the same time, in addition to this the extra muscles trained the more challenging the exercise which results in more calories torched or more muscle gained. Compare this to a sit down machine shoulder press where just your shoulders are used to execute the move and at the same time not having to concentrate on form. This is down to the fact that you are restricted to a single up and down pattern of movement by the equipment you are using, which is perfect for total isolation of your shoulders.

To help agree which approach is better, we will discuss the advantages and cons of each routine and let you choose for yourself

Advantages of using free weight

More muscles incorporated – Using free weight equipment permits you to lift in a natural plane of motion, which means your actual range of motion is not limited and your joints are operating naturally. Similar to the movements carried in everyday life and not just down the gym, you do not jump out of bed once awake or sprint up and down the stairs like a robot programmed to bend its leg ninety degrees at the knee or turn a precise movement to the side. This is beneficial down to the fact it permits you to train your body and muscles at alternate angles all the time as well as use secondary muscle groups indirectly to stabilize the primary muscle groups. It is also a more easier on your joints than performing an exercise or activity with a singular range of motion.

Faster results – Follows on from the point above. The more muscles incorporated the quicker you will notice overall results, irrespective if your aim is increased mass or strength, or fat loss by means of more total calories torched.

Disadvantages of using free weight

Inefficient isolation – If you are not lifting efficiently with regards to form, then using free weights might mean you are not isolating your muscle group as much as you need or your exercise is less efficient at utilizing the muscle it is meant to be working. If we consider a simple barbell bicep curl for example, performing the move whilst standing up is more effective if your form is spot on as you are isolating your biceps whilst tightening your core to steady your body during your lifts. If your form is not ideal and you find yourself swaying a little (usually a result of the weight being too heavy), then you are cheating by incorporating your shoulders and momentum to lift to bar up to your chest, thus not entirely isolating your biceps. If you were to perform this exercise through the use a bicep curl machine, then it is less challenging to maintain your upper body in a stable position and utilize your biceps by themselves to lift the weight. There is also less chance of injury using this method, which carries us onto our next point

Danger of Injury – If you reach positive failure when using free weight equipment and you are in a position where it is hard to put the weight back (standing shoulder press for example), then if not for a spotter or training partner nearby you might find yourself in some serious predicament. When using machines, unless some idiot places their fingers under the weight plates, there is a reduced chance of injury as all body parts should be kept out of harm’s way. This also makes free weight equipment a bad idea for people recovering from injury as the muscle group or adjoining muscle groups and joints may not be stronger enough to manage the weight and different ranges of movement. Machines restrict the need for additional muscles to perform and permit you to put back the weight to the stack easily once needed

Advantages of using machine

Practical for beginners – Using machines is especially attractive to the beginner. For starters, more often than not every machine has its own name (shoulder press, chest press), which makes it easier and more appealing to use that machine to work the individual muscle.

Easier to use and less need to worry about form – Just put the pin into your achievable weight, amend the location of the seat when necessary, sit down and follow the apparatus’s single pattern of motion. No problem! This also means they are a better option for supersets if you do not have access to a vast weight range of free weight equipment, as you may have to amend the weights on dumbbells etc. between each set. However, in this day and age the majority of do have a vast choice of different weights.

Easier for warming up – Like to whats above, just position the pin in a light weight and bang out a few brief warm up sets

Capacity to achieve positive and negative failure – As discussed, without having a training partner or spotter when using free weights, it can be quite hazardous achieving positive or negative failure. You do not want to be in a position where you are dropping the weight and damaging the gym. Through using machines, you can drive yourself that little bit further as you know the weight will drop to the stack once you hit fatigue.

Disadvantages of using machine

Inadequate strength gains – Most gym goers find that although they may be permitted to shift some serious weight when using machines, they find they cannot manage to achieve similar weight when performing a similar exercise using free weight equipment. This is because as already discussed when using machines you are only involving the one muscle, whereas using free weights enables the use of secondary muscle groups at the same time. Think about a chest press for example; the main muscle worked is the chest, secondary maybe the triceps. Now executing a free weight dumbbell bench press, the focus muscle worked is the chest, secondary and stabilizing muscle groups involved include triceps, shoulders, back and core. Thus, this variation is definitely more hard work to carry out using a similar weight to the machine chest press

Less size gains – This is again arguable however the more you isolate the muscle over working a range of muscle groups in the same exercise then the lengthier you will see increases in overall size. Take the first and secondary muscle groups used in the above chest press example again and think about which exercise is going to result in overall greater gains. Thus, contradicting one of the above machine use advantages, for this theory machines are best left to the more advanced or those who by this time have sufficient size and would rather pay more attention to individual or lacking muscle groups.

In summary of the above, it looks like machines have more benefits than free weights. Nevertheless, in our opinion the fact that greater muscle groups are utilized if form is adequate using free weights is the better option, be it dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. Of course, the optimum situation would be to use both methods. You will see results and reach your objectives whichever piece of equipment you use as always provided that nutrition, progression and intensity is correct

Ben Wain
Ben Wain

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