The debate that has raged for centuries, free weights VS machines. Only one can leave this battle alive (or can they?), so lets find out who wins!
I don’t know if you spend much of your time listening to people debate about fitness on the internet, but I do.
Sad, I know — but I really cant help myself.
Something that I realised while I was trawling through fitness forums is that people love to argue about insignificant stuff. I mean, really, who cares if you eat paleo or ketogenic? Intermittent fasting vs. eating breakfast? Three sets of 10 repetitions or four sets of 8 repetitions?
Hint: it really doesn’t matter.
I mean honestly, as long as it works for you, then who cares?
But one debate that comes up all the time is free weights vs. machines.
It doesn’t matter where in the world you go, you will find people screaming at the top of their lungs that one is better. On one side you will have the free weight enthusiasts, stating that their way of training is more functional. On the other, you will have machine-lovers swearing that their way of training is better for joint health and muscle growth.
But is this really the case?
Free Weights VS Machines
So, free weights vs machines? Is one way of training really better than the other?
Well, like most things in the health and fitness industry, it depends.
I know, I know — what a boring answer.
But that doesn’t mean its not true.
See, when it comes to exercise, and specifically weight training, there are really no bad exercises. Almost every exercise can serve a function, it just needs to be used in the right context. And this obviously holds true for free weight exercises and machine based exercises.
It is just a matter of where and when.
Free Weight Exercises
Free weight exercises describe any exercise that has you moving an external load (or your own body weight) through space. This means exercises that use dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells all fit the bill.
As a rule, free weight exercises closely replicate the movement demands placed on the body during athletic tasks (think jumping, running, and sprinting), and task of daily living (think walking up stairs, and standing up from a seated position).
As a result, they generally have better carryover to these more functional tasks. Moreover, they may also have the potential to improve stability to greater extent that machine based training, as their performance has a stability demand.
Too add another layer to this discussion, I want to talk about looks for a second. As many of you know, most of us don’t only train for functional gain. Many of us train for aesthetic reasons too.
This means building muscle and losing fat — which exactly where people will tell you machine based exercises are king.
However, there is evidence clearly demonstrating that literally any form of resistance training can cause muscle growth. And yes, this includes training with free weights. With this in mind, I would argue that when it comes to training for appearance, it is much for a muchness.
So free weights must better, right?
Hold up for just a second.
See, free weights do have some potential downfalls.
First and foremost, most free weight exercises are quite demanding from a technical perspective. This means that they do require you to have a significant amount of strength, stability, and motor control already available before you can complete them safely. This automatically means that they may not be the safest starting point for everyone.
Secondly, while this pains me to say it, when it comes to free weight exercises, there is a slightly higher risk of injury associated with their performance. I mean just think about it for a second. If you are performing a squat with 100kg on your back, your margin for error is much smaller than if you are performing a leg press machine with 200kg — even if the weight is greater.
Now, just to be clear — this risk can be mitigated by making sure you execute every repetition with near perfect form. But sometimes technique does break down, and that is when injury risk is increased. And this risk is undeniably greater with free weight exercises.
The rise of the machines!
Lets face it — to come to a decision, you need to hear both sides of the argument (especially when the answer is somewhat ambiguous…).
I have spent a little bit of time outlining the pros and cons of free weight exercises. Now I am going to go ahead and do the same with machine based exercises.
The first thing I want to touch on is the fact that like any other form of resistance training, machines offer a great method of increasing muscle size. In fact, they offer one key benefit over free weights as they can allow you to isolate individual muscles to a greater extent. While this may not be important to everyone, it does mean that if you want to spend a bit of time developing a specific muscle, then machines provide a great way to do so.
Secondly, while they may not have as much carryover to functional tasks as free weight exercise, they still have the capacity to devlop muscle strength — and this is important. See, many people will step foot into the gym for the first time, and not have the strength and stability available to perform free weight exercises effectively. With this in mind, machines provide the perfect way to build tissue strength and joint stability that will allow you to perform more complex free weight exercises in the future.
Think of them as the perfect stepping stone to more functional movement tasks.
Finally, something that I have already mentioned above is the fact that machine exercises are less complex than free weight exercises. While some people might take this to mean that they are ‘less functional’, I prefer to think of it as ‘they are easier to perform’. In this manner, they may actually be a safer alternative for people who are new to a gym setting.
Free Weights VS Machines: And The Winner is…
So, free weight VS machines? Who is the ultimate winner? Is one really better than the other?
Well, in my mind, not really — so I guess they both win?
Seriously, despite what internet trolls will have you believe, both free weights and machines can have a place in your training program. They both have pros and cons, and both offer benefits in certain situations. So use them as required, and don’t feel guilty for doing so!