Free Weights vs. Machines: Which Is Better?
- Friday, 27 March 2009
So goes the endless debate of weight training: “free weights or machines?” In my 30 years studying health and fitness, I have heard countless arguments and seen the industry consensus come full circle, from free weights to machines and back to free weights.
Having heard it all, researched it all, tested it all, I feel I can finally, confidently say this: free weights are better than machines.
Before we discuss the reasoning behind this statement, let’s take a look at the history surrounding this controversy.
History of the Fitness Industry
The fitness industry is a very young industry, beginning around the early 1900s. Back then, it was free weight and body weight exercises or none at all. Why? Because machines were not yet invented, and with ‘health clubs’ not yet popular, there was no real market for them.
In the 1960s, Jack LaLanne and Vic Tanny opened and popularized the first true health clubs, bringing the fitness industry to the mainstream American consciousness. Free weight exercises reigned supreme through the 1970’s until, out of nowhere, a challenger stepped into the ring: Arthur Jones introduced the first line of Nautilus machines. They were big, expensive machines, and were loudly touted as the new holy grail of the fitness industry.
I remember taking tours of health clubs in the late 1970s and early 1980s and hearing the gym owners sing the praises of their new lines of shiny machines. The prevailing wisdom was that free weight exercises were inferior for developing muscle because they required multi-muscle ‘compound movements’, while machines were superior because they isolated single muscles for development.
Fast forward to the present day, and the prevailing wisdom is that free weight exercises are superior to machines – for the exact same reason! This argument has split the fitness industry in two for decades, yet still seems to be going strong.
Of course, the debate is not completely one-sided. Machines and free weights each have their strengths and weaknesses. Before I make my case, take a closer look at the pros and cons of each.
Advantages of Machines
Machines don’t require much coordination. Just push or pull on the handles and the machine will guide you through its range of motion.
Machines can be useful for those that have debilitating injuries or diseases. For example, those who are confined to wheelchairs or have multiple sclerosis can benefit from the use of exercise machines.
Disadvantages of Machines
Machines don’t accommodate every body type.
Machines don’t build balance or coordination.
Machines can force you to move through a harmful range of motion.
Machines stabilize your body for you.
Machines are not practical. You need several machines to get a full body workout.
Machines overdevelop the superficial muscles of your body such as the deltoids (shoulders) and latissimus dorsi (lats).
Machines do not develop the stabilizer muscles, such as the rotator cuff and erector spinae muscles, which lie underneath the deltoid and latisimus dorsi muscles respectively.
Machines do not strengthen tendons and ligaments.
Machines contribute to injury due to the overdevelopment of superficial muscles and underdevelopment of stabilizer muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Advantages of Free Weights
Free weights are versatile. One set of dumbbells can be used for several exercises.
Free weights build balance and coordination.
Free weights allow your body to move through ranges of motion that match real life – a practice known as functional fitness.
Free weights better develop the critical mind-muscle link, allowing for better development.
Free weights not only build the superficial muscles, but also build the deeper stabilizer muscles.
Free weights develop tendon and ligament strength.
Free weights help prevent injury due to the equal development of superficial muscles, stabilizer muscles, tendons, and ligaments
Disadvantage of Free Weights
- You must learn how to perform free weight exercises correctly in order to receive their maximum benefit.
- Performing free weight exercises incorrectly increases risk for injury.
Free weights are the way to go. From cost to function to efficiency, free weights simply work better for improving one’s physique. However, the main reason I dislike machines is that they give you a false sense of strength which can easily lead to injury.
Example of How Machines Promote Shoulder Injuries
As mentioned above, machines overdevelop the larger superficial muscles (e.g.: biceps), but do not develop the deeper stabilizer muscles or tendons that surround and support them (e.g.: the rotator cuff, which secures your upper arm to your shoulder girdle).
So, with your newfound strength from weeks of machine training, you decide to move that old easy chair from the basement. But without the support of your neglected stabilizer muscles and tendons, you end up tweaking your arm on the first try, bringing spring cleaning to an early end.
When this happens, most people think that they lifted improperly. However, the fact of the matter is that your machine-trained superficial muscles were up to the task, but your machine-neglected stabilizer muscles couldn’t cut it and injured themselves straining.
Free weight and body weight exercises strengthen both the superficial muscles and their corresponding stabilizers. Because of this, people who utilize primarily free weight and body weight exercises, including myself, have a much lower incidence of rotator cuff injuries than those who use machines. This is why free weights are the preferred exercise medium for developing and improving your levels of functional fitness. If you are thinking of starting an exercise program, make sure that it includes free weight and body weight exercises.
Finally, be sure to seek the guidance of a qualified professional to reduce the risk of injury and receive the maximum benefits in minimal time.