When it comes to strength training, people often ask me whether free weights or cables are more effective. Like many things in fitness, the answer is: It depends.
Let’s start with the basics. Free weight exercises involve using dumbbells or barbells. Because these apparatuses aren’t confined, your movements aren’t limited, restricted or dictated by a machine. Cable exercises, on the other hand, are done on machines with pulleys and handles. Using a pin, you can adjust the amount of weight with which you’re working.
Beyond being time-tested and extremely effective, free weights are very versatile. Some of the crucial exercises, like squats, chest presses and lunges, are difficult or impossible to perform using the cable machine. Conversely, hip abductions and adductions are only possible using cables.
Cables do have a few advantages. For one, they provide constant tension on your muscles during an exercise. When using free weights, you only experience resistance when you’re working against gravity. With cables, the resistance is constant throughout the movement – and this can result in a more efficient workout on some exercises. Moreover, because the amount of resistance can be adjusted quickly on cable machines, they’re well-suited for muscle-building workout strategies like drop sets.
With all this in mind, it’s not really a question of either free weights or cables. In my workout, I use both. For example, I enjoy doing triceps pulldowns on cables while still doing some of the more traditional exercises – like chest presses, shoulder presses, squats, curls, etc. – with free weights.
Both free weights and cables provide muscles with resistance and both can result in gains of muscle size, strength and/or endurance. Whether an individual opts for free weights or cables often depends on the type of exercise being performed or the individual’s preference.