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Weight Machines vs Free Weights – Which Should You Be Using?

The whole weight machines vs free weights debate is one that has been raging pretty much for as long as I can remember, and it seems to have quite a number of people divided. This is particularly so among the diehard gym junkies, many of whom tend to have very rigid beliefs about which of the two is the optimal way of training.

The free weight purists pretty much all have the same criticism of weight machines, which is that they’re just not functional. They’ll argue that doing a bench press, or a squat, or a shoulder press on a machine isn’t the same as doing them using free weights. They actually consider weight machines to be cheating, since they guide the motion for you and remove any need for stabilization. Weight machines therefore make it too easy, and don’t allow your body to develop the ability to perform these movements “in the real world”.

All fair enough comments.

But the weight machine supporters have their views as well. They argue that using machines is quicker, easier, more convenient, and above all, safer with a lower risk of injury. They can also allow some specialized movements that just aren’t possible with free weights.

Some valid comments from that side as well.

So who’s right and who’s wrong then? Is one form of training actually better than the other, or is there really no validity to the weight machines vs free weights debate at all?

Well, training with weight machines certainly isn’t the same as training with free weights, that’s for sure. And if the two are in fact different, they’re naturally going to produce different results. But before we get into that I want to throw another player into the mix, and that’s body weight training.

There’s a group of believers in pure body weight training out there who say that neither weight machines nor free weights are functional enough. Their view is that true strength is determined purely by your ability to control and manipulate your own body, and that can only be developed through body weight training.

Another interesting point of view.

Let’s take a closer look at these three exercise types then and see if we can come up with a sensible answer to the weight machines vs free weights vs body weight puzzle of which is superior.

The Problems with Weight Machines, Free Weights and Body Weight Training

I want to start by discussing the negatives of each. And the only thing I want to say about this is that there are none.

The fact of the matter is that any drawbacks that a particular form of exercise may have can be easily overcome with a little common sense, so I prefer not to dwell on any of these as they’re all nonsense.

The only time I see people debating the negatives of a particular type of training is when they have some personal bias towards another for some reason, or when they’re trying to sell you on a different type. For example, some time ago I was reading through the sales webpage of an individual (who shall of course remain nameless) selling a body weight training program online. As part of his sales pitch he talked about the high incidences of rotator cuff injuries associated with weight training (referring specifically to chest presses). He went on to state that such injuries are rare with body weight exercises such as push-ups, going on to declare that body weight training is far safer than training with free weights.

Really?

What’s clearly escaped this person’s attention is the fact that when training with free weights, you actually have the option of choosing lighter weights if necessary, so that you can train safely within your abilities. Try tearing a rotator cuff with 10lb bench presses.

This is just a simple example of how individuals with a bias toward one form of training will direct generally invalid criticism at other forms, citing extreme examples, to support their own stubborn beliefs.

It’s far more constructive to focus on the benefits of each type of training, so that we can identify which one best suits our needs.

Weight Machines

Weight machines offer a number of unique attributes over free weights and body weight training.

Perhaps the most immediately obvious one is the fact that they guide your movements. While the functional training zealots would have you believe that this is precisely why you should never use them, it actually does provide a number of very valuable benefits under certain circumstances.

The main ones include:

  • It makes it more difficult for an exercise to be performed incorrectly, which is ideal for someone who’s new to exercise and still becoming familiar with different movements. In other words, weight machines can be the weight training equivalent of training wheels for novices.
  • It makes performing an exercise safer and therefore reduces the chance of injury. This is especially important in cases where a spotter would normally be required.
  • It makes weight machines ideal for rehabilitation situations where safe, controlled movements are essential due to existing weaknesses and/or vulnerabilities in the exerciser.
  • By removing the need for stabilizer muscles to be used, weight machines allow you to isolate a target muscle group more completely, therefore enabling you to subject it to a greater load than would otherwise be possible. This is very useful for helping to develop muscle attributes such as maximal strength and hypertrophy (growth).
  • It allows you to do exercises that are not constrained by the need to maintain your balance. In performing free weight squats, for example, while you can change the angle at which your legs and glutes are targeted by locating the weight differently, only so much is possible. By using machines such as a hack squat machine or Smith machine on the other hand, you’re able to position your feet virtually anywhere – out in front of you, off to the side to achieve an oblique line of force, and so on. This allows a greater range of possibilities and angles at which you can work your target muscle groups.

Another important attribute that weight machines have over free weights and body weight exercises is the fact that they’re not constrained by having a force that only acts in one direction. Free weights and body weight exercises work through the force of gravity, and gravity is always acting straight down. Weight machines, on the other hand, can provide a force that changes as the body part being trained moves.

To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of a simple barbell bicep curl.

When performing a bicep curl, the movement is quite easy at the bottom, since at this point the bar is moving more horizontally than vertically against gravity. As the curl progresses however it gets harder and harder, until your forearms are approximately horizontal, where the force of gravity is working against you most directly. Past that point the curl then starts to become easier and easier, until you reach the top of the movement and it becomes very easy once again because the direction of motion again becomes more horizontal.

The bicep curl machine works quite differently to this. Because it actually produces a torque (a turning force) rather than a straight-line force, the force it exerts on your biceps is constant from the very beginning of the movement up to the very end. In this way it enables you to work your entire range of motion very thoroughly, which a gravity-based exercise can’t do. Gravity-based exercises can generally only target one specific area of a range of motion.

This example also applies to a number of different exercises, such as tricep extensions, leg extensions, leg curls, lateral deltoid raises, and so on.

The third major unique attribute of weight machines is the fact that they can provide an infinite number of lines of force, as opposed to just one – straight down (under gravity). Using different body orientations goes some way to achieving more lines of force when doing free weight and body weight exercises. For example, a chest press or push-up can be done either flat, inclined, or declined.

But this solution is limited, and isn’t always practical. For example, performing a high row or a high cable face pull using free weights would require your body to be head-down at about 45 to 60 degrees from the ground, or even more. Similarly, performing an upright row using body weight only would require you to be upside down.

Using weight machines, particularly those employing cables, allows you to quickly and conveniently create lines of force virtually anywhere, which isn’t always possible using other means.

And finally, weight machines (as well as free weights, of course) allow you to use loads that aren’t restricted to your own body weight. For example, try bench pressing 200lb or squatting 350lb using body weight alone.

Free Weights

For many people, free weights form the foundation of a weight training program. That’s because they’re versatile, convenient, and allow you to perform just about every major movement that you need to do.

While training with free weights doesn’t quite offer that same versatility, variety and fine tune-ability that weight machines do, there really isn’t any muscle group that can’t be targeted effectively in this way.

One of the major benefits of training with free weights is that they require stabilization. For example, performing body weight push-ups or chest presses on a chest press machine are both inherently stable. Performing chest presses using dumbbells, on the other hand, is much more challenging because it requires smaller stabilizer muscles around your shoulders to work hard to keep your arms roughly vertical throughout the movement.

So while using weight machines allows you to develop high forces in your target muscles, training with free weights allows you to develop the ability to actually lift things, push things and pull things in the real world. This is why so much credence is given to large compound and Olympic-style lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, cleans and snatches.

Free weight training therefore develops more functional muscle strength, as well as more complete muscular development. For this reason, if building real strength or aesthetic muscle mass is your goal, free weight training should form the basis of your training program.

Body Weight Training

While it may sound so far as though weight machines and free weights provide you with everything you can possibly want in a training program, the fact is that body weight training also has its place.

Even in a traditional-type training program that focuses on muscle growth and strength, there are a number of very useful, purely body weight exercises that can be utilized. The main ones include pull-ups/chin-ups, triceps dips, push-ups, sit-ups, crunches and leg raises. Abdominal training in particular is well-suited to the use of body weight movements, and while many of these may be weighted the fact is that your body weight normally has the greater influence.

In this type of training program body weight exercises don’t necessarily have any advantages or disadvantages over free weight training. At the end of the day resistance is resistance, and 100lb of flesh and bone weighs the same as 100lb of iron.

Where body weight training really comes into its own over weight machines and free weights however, is when training for athleticism and function in the real world. This is why it’s so heavily emphasized in military-style training.

For example, performing lat pull-downs and high rows will certainly build strength in your lats and upper back. But nothing will really develop your ability to climb a rope or a rock face like actually climbing a rope or a rock face. This type of training will not only strengthen your lats and upper back, it will also develop the grip strength in your forearms and hands, train all the stabilizer muscles involved, condition your body to the constant tension and shifting dynamics of the task, and so on.

In addition, for developing athletic attributes such as the ability to run, jump, throw, climb, and so on, body weight plyometrics are ideal.

Settling the Weight Machines vs Free Weights vs Body Weight Training Debate

Hopefully you’re beginning to see then that there really is no debate in this matter. The decision doesn’t have to be an either/or one. Each form of training comes with its own specific benefits, and it’s up to you to understand what they are and therefore how to apply each type of training in your program to best suit your requirements. Hopefully this article has helped you to do that.

To exclude an entire type of training off-hand is to forego all the unique benefits that it can bring to your program.

For example, whereas stabilization might be a reason for wanting to use a particular form of training in one situation, lack of stabilization may be a reason for wanting to use a different form in another situation. Consider the simple chest press. In order of decreasing stability, some typical chest press exercises are:

  • Seated Chest Press Machine
  • Smith Machine Bench Press
  • Max Rack Bench Press
  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Bench Press
  • TRX Push-Up

Someone with a fixation for developing the stabilizer muscles involved in a chest press would therefore recommend you limit yourself only to TRX push-ups and dumbbell bench presses. These two exercises are great and both very important, but they’ll never allow you to develop the same level of maximal strength and muscle growth that you’ll experience from say barbell bench presses or a chest press machine. And conversely, limiting yourself to the machine alone will never allow you to develop the stabilizer muscles for more complete muscle development and usable strength.

The sensible solution therefore is to make use of all the options available to you, while focusing more on those that align with your goals, whether they involve strength, muscle size, fat loss, power, speed, or whatever else.

So don’t let anyone tell you never to use one form, or always to use another. Anyone offering this kind of advice either doesn’t understand training or is blindly sticking to their own beliefs for their own personal reasons. As is almost always the case in fitness, extremism isn’t the answer.

Let me know about which of the three types of training you utilize the most in your program and why. Is it because that’s what’s in line with your goals, or because someone told you that’s what you should be doing? Let me know in the comments below.

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Fabian

Fabian

Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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