Many gyms have seemingly endless tools you can use to build strength. Dumbbells, med balls, pulleys, ropes, machines, oh my. There are so many options, honestly that figuring out whether to go for free weights vs. machines, for example, can be seriously confusing.
In fact, fitness pros have been debating whether free weights or weight machines, in particular, are the way to go for pretty much forever. Don’t let that age-old battle stop you from getting strong, though. A regular strength training routine boasts tons of benefits, including giving your heart a boost, improving your resting metabolic rate (which could, in turn, contribute to weight loss if, that’s your goal), and doing your mental health good.
It can also reduce your risk of injuries that stem from low bone density, as well as making your ligaments and tendons stronger, adds celebrity trainer ShaNay Norvell. Plus, “strength training allows you to perform day-to-day activities with more ease,” Norvell explains. Talk about a confidence booster.
Of course, there’s still plenty of back-and-forth out there about the *best* way to work on strength. So if you’re sold on getting strong but still don’t know where to start, let’s break down two of your most popular options: free weights and weight machines.
Free Weights vs. Weight Machines: What’s The Difference?
While dumbbells might be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear free weights, a wide variety of equipment types fall under that umbrella term, including barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and even weighted ankle cuffs. Essentially, any weight that can be moved in any direction freely could be considered a free weight.
Machines, on the other hand, are sturdy, fixed units designed to allow the user to move a weight in a single direction (or plane) in space.
Free weights and weight machines can both be utilized to perform compound movements (exercises that activate multiple muscle groups at once) and single-joint, isolation exercises. However, most machines are designed to target one muscle in particular at a time (think seated biceps curls or leg extensions).
The Pros And Cons Of Weight Machines
Build strength while sitting down? Sounds like a dream. While weight machines certainly have a few perks, but they’re not free of drawbacks.
Since weight machines tend to hyper-focus on one muscle or muscle group, it’s possible to build specific muscles fairly quickly when using them consistently.
In fact, one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that exercisers were able to lift far more over a period of time if they trained with a weight machine as opposed to free weights. Why? The researchers noted that the built-in stability machines provide (and lack of other muscle involvement required) allows you to make the greatest gains in specific muscles.
The assistance a machine provides can also make a particular exercise feel easier and more intuitive, says Norvell. Just make sure you’re reading the instructions very carefully (and maybe enlisting the help of a gym staff member).
Want to get strong without ANY equipment? We’ve got just the workout for you:
They’re also especially handy if you’re mending an injury. Working out with machines can be an effective way to build strength elsewhere in your body without aggravating your injury, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
That being said, if you’re new to strength training, you might not want to rely on weight machines, says Alex Hall, CSCS, a strength coach at JDI Barbell in New York City. “Machines lock you into specific planes of movement and prevent you from building full-body strength, balance, and control.”
Plus, “weight machines are not one-size-fits-all,” explains Norvell. “Some weight machines have limited adjustment options, which can compromise form or comfort if you’re taller or shorter than the seat adjustments allow.”
The Pros And Cons Of Free Weights
Although weight machines will certainly help you build muscle, that’s not the only factor to consider, Hall notes.
Basically, machines simply can’t help you build total-body strength, balance, and stability like free weights can.
“Anyone who cares to gain strength, build muscle, or just look and feel better should spend most of their time doing compound movements with free weights,” Hall explains. Since you’ll have to balance and move the weights without support, more of your body has to work (and in different ways) throughout every rep.
Given that, exercising with free weights over weight machines certainly doesn’t make you exempt from injuries. “A person needs to be very aware of their form to ensure proper range-of-motion and avoid injuries with free weights,” says Norvell.
In fact, one study on injuries sustained at fitness facilities noted that more than half occurred while strength training with free weights, often as a result of overestimating strength (and piling on weight too quickly), using poor form, or even failing to execute a rep and dropping the weight on a body part. Ouch.
Luckily, you can keep your free-weight routine incredibly simple and still see results. In fact, some of Hall’s favorite free-weight exercises for building strength—which include goblet squats and bent-over rows—are also some of the simplest.
When To Use Free Weights vs. Machines
Ultimately, both free weights and weight machines have a time and a place in your strength training routine. While Hall recommends focusing primarily on free weights if you’re able, machines come in clutch if you want to show a certain muscle some extra love. As with anything, it’s all about striking a ~balance~.
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