Free weights vs machines. We’ve already discussed the importance of lifting weights and all the benefits it brings. When you are faced with the choice of machines or free weights, which section do you head for? Having worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years, (Pilates Instructor, Dance, Rock Climbing and Personal Training) I’ve come across the free weights vs machines debate a lot. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of free weights rather than machines, but there are definite pros and cons to both.
FREE WEIGHTS VS MACHINES
If you are a beginner. Is this your first time at the gym? Your best bet is to start on the machines. They usually have pictures showing you exactly what exercises they are for. They can still be intimidating (a topic I will cover in a later post), but you can pretty much figure them out. Also, If you don’t have the benefit of working with a personal trainer, you can easily create your own workout simply by targeting all the different machines.
Injury recovery. If you are just getting off an injury and have your doctor’s okay to workout, you might want to stick with machines at first, as you will be able to isolate a specific muscle group. Your movements will be more controlled and you can focus on your range of motion and rehabilitation.
Can cause injury. Doing the same movement over and over again for long periods of time can actually cause overuse injuries. If you aren’t using proper form, we’ve all seen that guy jerking the machine so roughly that the whole thing moves, that can cause injury as well. The machines can give you a false sense of security and bad form combined with too much weight is a recipe for disaster.
Less strength gain for functional movement. Although you might find that over time you are lifting heavier weights, you probably aren’t really getting stronger. I know that may sound a little bit confusing, but think of it this way. If you are just repeating the same simple movements over and over again, using the same muscles in the same way, what happens when you introduce a new complex movement like lifting a heavy box? To lift the box, all of your different muscles have to engage in a specific pattern and if you haven’t been doing that in the gym, then you risk injury.
Free Weights Pros
Versatility. If you are more advanced then give free weights a try as you are not limited to the range of motion that you can do on a machine.
Imitate everyday movement patterns. They are more versatile and you can imitate many of your everyday movement patterns. Due to its incredible range of motion, let’s use the shoulder as an example. Years ago when I was in physio, I noticed many elderly people, all with similar injuries to their shoulders and rotator cuffs. They had hurt themselves putting away the dishes. Now for most of us this is an unimaginable injury, but in the future, who knows? By using free weighs, you can easily re-create similar movements which will protect you as you get older. Okay and for vanity’s sake, a nicely sculpted shoulder muscles look great too.
Increased use of all your muscles. In addition, adding small equipment like a physio ball, forces you to work on your core as you try to balance. All those small stabilizing muscle groups that support your dominant muscles have to engage. Even a simple exercise, like an arm lift, forces you to activate your core, so that you don’t wobble or fall over. Now try that same movement while doing a lunge, standing on a balance board or BOSU ball. It becomes much more challenging.
Free Weights Cons
Spotter is sometimes required. Not for every exercise mind you and it depends on how much weight you are lifting, but there are definitely times when you want to have a second pair of hands helping you out. Unless you are working out with a partner, this can certainly pose a bit of a challenge.
Increased risk of injury. I know what you are thinking, this same point was brought up under the machine cons, but it applies to free weights as well. When weight lifting, you need to be vigilant with proper form. Watch yourself carefully in the mirror and ask yourself, “are my stomach muscles engaged? Are my shoulders relaxed? Am I balanced? Am I standing with my feet hip width apart (where applicable)? Is my head in line with my shoulders? Am I hunching forward or arching back?” It’s a lot to think about and once you are used to it no big deal, but at first you should be conscious of what your body is doing.
In truth, most of us should probably be doing a combination of both types of workouts. The machines are there to help you with more rigid movements and the free weights will help you the functional training. Whichever you decide to focus on, take some time to make sure that you are present in your workout, leave the day’s stress outside and pay attention to your movements. Using the proper form and weights will help reduce chances of injury and give you the best possible workout. So go hit the gym and make sure to stay safe and have fun. Next up is a beginner’s guide to using weight machines.
At the gym do you prefer free weights or machines?