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Free Weights vs. Machines: Is One Better Than the Other?

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by Martin JJ
image for free weights article

The Basics

Resistance training causes muscles or muscle groups to work against a force, such as gravity or exercise equipment, that provides a resistance strong enough to increase strength. Some of the more familiar equipment used for resistance training are free weights, machines, and cable systems.
There has been a lot of debate over which type of resistance training is best. The best plan may be to explore your options and decide which one meets your needs. A combination of the different types of resistance training may offer the most effective workout.

Health Benefits of Resistance Training

There are numerous health benefits associated with resistance training, including:
  • Increased muscle strength, power, and endurance
  • Stronger connective tissue
  • Increased bone density
  • Reduced body fat
  • Increased rate at which calories are burned
  • Reduced risk of injuries
  • Improved balance and coordination

Build a Program

Before embarking on a program, there are many factors to consider—the most important being your personal goals. If you are a beginner, start with a simple program. As you gain confidence and strength, you can progress by varying your exercises, the number of repetitions and sets, and the length of time you rest between sets.
Choose the equipment that is right for you:
  • Machines—Machines are designed to apply resistance in a restricted manner. They place your body in a fixed position, providing stability and balance, and allowing only the targeted muscle(s) to be worked. Exercises on machines can be learned easily and don’t require a lot of coordination. In addition, there is minimal opportunity for error and low risk of injury. Machines are often favored for people with injuries because they control range, motion, and speed. Machines have disadvantages, as well. For example, if you are shorter or taller than average, you may need to make adjustments to use the piece of equipment properly.
  • Free weights—Proper form is more challenging with free weights than with machines, because you must incorporate balance and stability in order to isolate the proper muscles. They also require control and coordination. Free weights accommodate various body types and sizes and provide unlimited exercise options. However, there is more room for error and increased risk of injury. But free weights can be much more versatile and affordable than machines, which is important if you plan to work out at home.
  • Cable systems—These are a hybrid of free weights and machines. Some pulley systems are designed so that multiple exercises can be performed on a single piece of equipment, allowing a full-body workout.
There are advantages to both free weights and machines, but often one is more appropriate than the other to achieve specific outcomes. Combining the two forms allows you to enjoy the advantages of both. For example, certain muscle groups are difficult to isolate with free weights. In this case, machines are a better option, even for experienced lifters. Machines also allow you to lift heavier weights. However, they impose restrictions that may not be right for every user. Free weights enable the body to move more naturally and allow you to make slight variations in form. In addition, they are universal—every gym will have familiar free weight equipment.

Supervision Enhances Performance

The debate continues about which form of resistance training is better, but there is little disagreement that exercises performed under the supervision of an instructor will produce better results. In one study, the results of a supervised group were significantly better compared to an unsupervised group.

Using Your Body

Free weights and machines are not the only resistance training options. Body weight can provide enough resistance for a workout—push-ups and dips are just two examples—and resistance bands are easy to transport. Fitness instructors can suggest creative exercises and tips on proper form for persons who are traveling or without access to a gym.

(Especially) Not Just for Jocks

The media and popular culture identifies weight training with youth, flat abs, and big biceps. In fact, weight training can be most beneficial for many people who will never find themselves on the front cover of fitness magazines. Close supervision (often with careful physician monitoring) is necessary for safety and effectiveness. The results often include better strength, endurance, and quality of life.
 

RESOURCES

American College of Sports Medicine
http://www.acsm.org

National Strength and Conditioning Association
http://www.nsca-lift.org

 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
www.csep.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada
http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

 

References


Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2004;36(4).


Kraemer WJ, Mazzetti SA. Effect of resistance training on women’s strength/power and occupational performances. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2001;33(6).


Mazzetti SA, Kraemer WJ, et al. The influence of direct supervision on resistance training and strength performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2000;32(6).


Newton, RU, Hakkinen K, et al. Mixed-methods resistance training increases power and strength of young and older men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2002;34(8).


Stone M., Plisk S, et al. Training principles: evaluation of modes and methods of resistance training. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2000;22(3).


Cheema BS, O'Sullivan AJ, et al. Progressive resistance training during hemodialysis: rationale and method of a randomized-controlled trial. Hemodial Int. 2006;10(3):303-310.


Meyer K. Resistance exercise in chronic heart failure—landmark studies and implications for practice. Clin Invest Med. 2006;29(3):166-169.


Selecting and effectively using free weights. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-free-weights.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2014.


Selecting and effectively using home weight machines. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-home-weight-machines.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2014.


When strength training, is it better to use machines or free weights. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: http://www.acefitness.org/blog/68/when-strength-training-is-it-better-to-use. Published October 7, 2009. Accessed May 15, 2014.

 

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