Most commercial gyms seem to be split right down the middle into two sides: free weights vs. machines. Layout and design aside, should these two be separated? Can both fit comfortably in a workout program? Or is it best to choose a team and stick with it?
Let’s take a look at the differences between free weights vs. machines, and which one you should incorporate into your fitness program.
FREE WEIGHTS: PROS AND CONS
Free weights include any external weighted object that can be moved around in all planes of motion, allowing you to achieve a full range of movement. Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells – and any variation of these – are the best examples.
Most Versatile Option: Free weights are hands down the most versatile option. They can be used for the majority of all exercises, they guarantee a full range of motion, and they are easy to transport.
Great Investment: Since there are no moving parts or pulley systems inside of free weights, they are naturally the better long-term investment. Buying a solid bench, power rack, and weight plates could be an investment that you’ll pass down to your kids.
Correct Strength Imbalances: Before stepping into the gym, which side of your body was far stronger than the other? After a few months of weightlifting with free weights, one of the biggest differences you’ll notice – aside from building muscle and losing fat – is that your weaker side isn’t lagging as much. To take this one step further, free weights are key to balancing out muscle size differences in bodybuilders.
Higher Risk of Injury: Without a base of support, free weights are free to go where they want. This is a big advantage for form, posture, and results, but it also comes with the risk of a sports injury. Dropping a barbell on your leg, a dumbbell that slips on your face, or a kettlebell that crashes into a mirror: these are the risks that come with the territory.
Upfront Cost for Quality: As mentioned above, free weights are an excellent long-term investment, but in order to guarantee that your dumbbells and weight plates last 10, 15, or 20 years, you need to throw down some serious cash up front. Cheap, low-quality free weights could mean breaks, chips, and rust within the first year of use.
EXERCISE MACHINES: PROS AND CONS
You’ve seen those rows of machines that look like something out of a medieval torture dungeon. An exercise machine has a solid and unmoving base that is often connected to an adjustable pulley weight system. Exercise machines force your muscles to move in a set path of motion.
Rehabilitation: For those who are recovering after a surgery or injury, exercise machines can be an excellent first step. Since the path of motion is fixed, there is no risk of dropping a weight. What’s more, the weight can be conveniently adjusted to match the person’s level of ability.
Safety: Continuing with the point above, exercise machines are a safer choice for those who are fragile or prone to injury such as the elderly, those going through rehab, or children who are beginning to learn exercises.
Changing with the Times: Let’s face it: The exercise machines that were around during the days of Arnold are better off as paperweights. One of the great things about exercise machines is that the best ones are constantly evolving and changing based on research and user experience.
Possibility of Unnatural Movement: Some machines, especially older models, do not follow a natural path of movement. Not only does this hamper results since you’ll never maximize your range of motion, but it also increases risk for injury due to pushing connective tissue into unnatural and potentially dangerous planes of motion.
Expensive and Heavy: Just like with a full collection of free weights, a high-quality exercise machine can be a hefty upfront cost. If you plan on building a home gym, then this will eventually pay for itself. However, since the machines are so heavy, you have to take into consideration the type of flooring you have and how often you’ll need to move it. In other words, exercise machines aren’t terribly convenient.
SHOULD YOU USE EXERCISE MACHINES IN YOUR WORKOUT?
Depends. If you have the luxury to choose between free weights and machines, then we would recommend a combination of both.
Obviously, if the only weightlifting equipment that you have access to are exercise machines, then by all means use them. We wouldn’t want you missing out on muscle building and fat loss just because you can’t get your hands on dumbbells or barbells.
With that said, if you are at a gym that has access to both, we would suggest a workout that focuses primarily on free weights and a few machine-based exercises.
BEST MACHINE EXERCISES
Here are the machines that we would recommend and the exercises you can perform on them:
- Triceps Pushdown
- Crucifix Curl
- Cable Crunch
LEG EXTENSION MACHINE
- Double leg extension
- Single leg extension
LYING LEG CURL
- Double leg curl
- Single leg curl
SEATED PLATE-LOADED CALF PRESS / RAISE
- Exaggerated calf presses / raises
- Single leg calf presses / raises
DONKEY KICK MACHINE
- Single leg donkey kick (glute-focused)
LAT PULLDOWN MACHINE
- Wide grip lat pulldown
- Close grip lat pulldown
- Wide, vertical grip pulldown
Try to stay away from most upper body machines as the chance for connective tissue damage is higher. For example, the seated chest press machine begins by forcing the hands at or behind the shoulders. This places immense stress on the connective tissue in the shoulder and increases your risk for a tear.