Free Weights Vs. Machines

Author: Joseph Krachenfels

Over the years there has been much debate as to which mode of weight training, free weights or machines will provide you with a better workout, and in turn will produce faster and more dramatic results to your physique. Many weight training athletes, ranging from hardcore body builders and power lifters to fitness enthusiasts and personal trainers will attest that free weights are the end all and be all, while others will swear by machines. The truth is that both modes of training offer advantages to any and all weight training individuals. As author Elizabeth Quinn has stated “research shows that free weights promote quicker strength gains than machines”. This can be attributed to many different factors such as, that free weights recruit more muscle groups and stabilizer muscles, and require more balance and coordination than do machines in the performance of exercise.

Free weights place resistance not only on the muscle that you are training, but they also place resistance on the stabilizer muscles that act to help stabilize your body (hold you in place) when you are exercising, and free weights also require you to balance the barbell or dumbbells that you are training with. For example when you perform the bench press exercise with free weights, not only is your chest being trained, but the muscles that act to stabilize you and allow you to balance the weight as you are performing this exercise, your shoulders, triceps, and upper back to name but a few, also play a role. Comparatively when you bench press on a machine, the machine takes over the task of stabilizing you.

Free weights also provide more variation in the range of motion of a particular exercise, and more closely mimic natural body movements, thereby allowing your body to move through a more natural plane of motion as compared to that of a machine which is fixed and rigid, and only provides a range of motion through one specific path, typically a straight line or arc. In addition, free weights are the preferred mode of training for many of today’s top body builders and power lifters, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has stated that he “has always preferred free weights to machines in his training”.

Machines on the other hand also have many advantages. Most machines provide what is known as rotary and balanced resistance. Rotary resistance basically means that resistance will be placed on the muscle that you are training throughout the given exercises full range of motion. For example in the barbell curl (free weight exercise), your biceps have weight on them at the start position (bottom), but do not have weight on them at the end position (top). Comparatively with a machine curl, weight is placed on your biceps throughout the entire range of motion of this exercise, both at the bottom and the top position, “providing a superior form of stress on your working muscles, by means of continuous tension and peak contraction” (Flex 33).

Balanced resistance means that the stress placed on your muscle by the given exercise is balanced throughout that exercises full range of motion, and will “compensate for naturally strong and weak portions of the arc (range of motion) for each movement (exercise)” (33). Again, in the case of the barbell curl (free weight exercise); your biceps are much stronger at the starting position (bottom), than in the mid-range position (middle) of this exercise. So for the barbell curl it will be easier to perform the motion at the starting position (bottom), as opposed to performing the mid-range position (middle) of this exercise. Comparatively with a machine curl, “resistance is balanced by the machine and the weight will be functionally heavier at the starting position (bottom) of the curl” (33). In addition, machines are ideal for people that are training alone, in that they have built in safety features such as foot pedals and pins, and do not require a spotter. As well, machines are typically used by individuals that are rehabilitating injuries because they specifically isolate certain muscle groups, and provide a more controlled range of motion.

While both modes of training, free weights and machines each have their unique advantages in the realms of weight training it is important to realize that neither mode is superior to the other. The best approach to follow when weight training is to incorporate both modes of training into your training program. Doing so will ensure that you are training your muscles as fully and completely as possible, thereby deriving the advantages of each training mode. As well, you will provide the necessary variety to your training which is crucial in order to continuously produce results to your physique, and to prevent boredom and burn out in your training.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Encyclopedia of Modern Body Building, Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Elizabeth Quinn, M.S

Flex magazine, January 1991.