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Machine Weights VS Free Weights

Machine vs free weights - cover

With the abundance of weights apparatus available it’s easy to be left scratching your head as to which is best for overall progression. In this article we explore the differences between machine and free weights, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Machine Weights

Machine weights are exercise machines that allow for weight bearing exercises. More commonly comprising of a pulley system, there are two types of machine weights; stack or plate loaded.

Stack machines have the weight built into the machine on a stack, allowing for faster changes in weight. Plate loaded machines, use weight plates which requires a little more time and effort in the loading and unloading of the machine before and after use.

Stack Loaded Machine

Stack Loaded Machine

Machine vs free weights - plate loaded machine

Plate Loaded Machine

Pros

  • Great for beginners – Most machines have a picture demonstrating its use allowing for ease of operation. The stability and guidance provided by machine weights allows for muscular activation whilst minimising the short term risk of injury throughout repetitions. 
  • Improved muscular activation – Machine weights stabilise the body. The minimal allowance of movement allows for greater concentration of tension in working joints and muscles. This concentrated contraction is great for bodybuilders or physique models where proportion reigns supreme. Machine weights provide a more focused contraction to build ‘weak’ muscles for a well proportioned physique.
  • Safe use of heavy weights – Adding resistance is paramount to progression. Increasing weight can seem daunting to the beginner lifter, however machine weights allow for greater increases in weight without the added risk of injury. The guidance through repetitions ensures proper technique is maintained throughout the lift (correct set up permitting).  Pro tip: Never sacrifice technique and form for weight. Proper form maximises muscle activation.
  • Useful for rehab and the less mobile – The stabilisation machine weights provide makes them ideal for rehab and the less mobile such as the elderly or anyone with a condition which hinders mobility. The guidance minimises risk while allowing weak muscles to strengthen. 

Cons

  • Non-functional – A major advantage of machine weights it’s is stabilising capabilities. However, this stabilisation comes at a cost. The human body was designed to work in conjunction with each other. The guidance and stabilising affects machines have, reduce functionality. Functional  exercises are movements which are used throughout everyday life (e.g the squat – getting up and down from a seated position). As machine weights limit movement, it heavily reduces functional strength; making machines less ideal for athletes that require multi jointed/muscular movement patterns.
  • Neglect stabilizing muscles – The greater isolation of muscle groups and stabilisation the machine provides means that there is less of a need of stabilising muscles from the user . The neglect of these stabilising muscles causes them to become weak in comparison to the primary mover. The downside to this is the muscular imbalance it creates, therefore increasing the long term risk of injury (e.g shoulder pain caused by overworked/strong pectoralis major and weak rotator cuffs pulling the humerus – arm bone forward).
  • Minimises muscle activation – As reps are guided through the motion, there is less need of control from the user. Controlling a weight and its line of repetition requires more of the muscle to work to guide the weight through the rep whereas, a guided rep uses less muscle as there is less need from the muscle to control the weight.

Free Weights

Free weights can be described as an object that is unlimited in its range of motion and use, to build muscle. Something as simple as a rock can be seen as a free weight. There are three main types of free weights: barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. Each has it’s own pros and cons (mainly the concentration of weight over surface area allowing for a different focus of tension on muscle) but for this article we’ll look at the pros and cons collectively.

Machine vs free weights - barbell

Barbell

Machine vs free weights - dumbbell

Dumbbells

Machine vs free weights - kettlebell

Kettlebell

Pros

  • Unlimited movement patterns/Increased functionality – Due to the weight being ‘free’ there really is no limit to the movement patterns free weights allow. Imagination is the limit. A little anatomical bio mechanics knowledge is really all you need to create your own exercises. 
  • Improved muscle activation – The complete freedom to move around rather than being guided into a locked, specific range of motion or pattern allows for better activation on muscle fibers. For example, on a chest press machine, all that is required is the pushing of the arms, whereas, with a bench press exercise, the weight is free to move anywhere. The controlling of the weight to keep it above the chest activates more muscle.
  • Place a greater demand on stabilizing muscles – Using free weights will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles while you are training keeping your joints strong and supple.
  • Promotes higher caloric loss – Free weights exercises requires more working muscle compared to it’s machines counterpart. The increase in working muscle, improves caloric expenditure as more energy is required for those muscles to work.
  • Train anywhere – Learning how to train with free-weights or body weight allows you to literally train anywhere. With the recent explosion of suspension trainers now available on the market, the world is your gym!

Cons

  • Technique is imperative – The freedom of movement with free weights places a higher importance on lifting technique. Technique is key and determines the amount of tension that is being placed on working muscle groups. The slightest misalignment in posture compromises muscle stimulation potential.
  • Higher risk of injury – Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve than machines as lifting technique determines muscle activation. Performing exercises with poor technique/form greatly increases the risk of injury. Seeking professional help from a personal trainer is highly recommended.
  • Gym buddy/spotter required for heavy lifts – As free weights have no guidance, racking and unracking can be quite difficult training under heavy loads. A spotter or gym buddy (someone that can help you if you fatigue mid rep) is highly recommended.

Summary

  • Machine weights and free weights have their own pros and cons and should be used in accordance to overall goals
  • Machines are safer to use but limited in movement and muscle activation
  • Free weights are limitless in movement and muscle activation but have a higher risk of injury
  • Free weights are best for overall performance
  • For best results, use both. Changes in tension to muscle promotes growth and progress