Ever since bodybuilders hit Venice Beach in California, there has been a never ending battle between the purists of weight training and those who just want to build a better mousetrap, or bodybuilder as the case may be.
What was it going to be?
Or dare I even say it, both?
The purists of weight training would swear by free weights, your barbells, dumbbells, squat racks and scary looking torture devices.
Those looking for the next big thing would argue for machines, for bio-mechanically correct movements and giant stacks of iron weights movable by a metal pin.
Who’s right and who is wrong?
Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawback of each so that we can make an informed decision.
We’ll address Free Weights first.
Benefits of free weights:
1. With free weights, you are forced to stabilize your body for the movement. Because of this, you get all of your stabilizing muscles activating such as your abdominals and lower back. More muscles, more work, better results is this argument.
2. Free weights tend to be a more natural movement, similar to what you would do in real life or in sports.
3. Free weights are incredibly versatile, don’t take up much room and can be used for every single part of your body without too much extra moving around.
4. With free weights you are more flexible to work the same muscle group in many different ways without having to move from one piece to another, sometimes all it will take is a change in angle or joint position.
5. Free weights are less expensive overall.
Disadvantages of Free Weights
1. You must be constantly balancing yourself with the weights. This can lead to added pressure on the spine or increased risk of injury if lifting overhead. Similar to benefit #1, more muscles, more work. This can also be a downside to free weights.
2. It can be hard to isolate specific muscles unless you are able to hold the single correct position for the exercise. You need to learn and follow through with exact precision for each exercise in order to gain the most effectiveness.
3. Free weights can lose effectiveness just by the addition of momentum. Swinging the weights, rather than lifting and lowering with your muscular strength cuts down on the effectiveness drastically.
4. There is a high rate of injury with free weights. Between bad form, working out alone and using more weight than you’re able, you run the risk of painful and potentially long lasting injuries.
Let’s change gears and look at the benefits of Weight machines.
Benefits of Weight Machines:
1. Machines are safe and easy to use, making them a good option for beginners to cut the learning curve.
2. Machines are very precise and can help you isolate and target a very specific muscle or muscle group. This is good when you need to strengthen or rehabilitate a specific body part.
3. Machines force you into one single movement. There is not much room for deviation so you can be sure that you are doing the correct exercise 99% of the time.
4. With machines, you can cut your workout time dramatically since the time to get set up is minimal and the weight can be changed by just moving a metal pin around.
Disadvantages of Weight Machines:
1. One movement, one path, only one way to strengthen a muscle. There is no room for variation at all. The machine’s path is non-changeable.
2. Machines are limited. Most machines can do only one exercise. To get in a full body workout, you’ll need a full room of machines.
3. Most machines are set to the industry average person. That means if you are larger or smaller than the average person, the machine will not fit you well, if at all.
4. Machines are more expensive and usually require consistent upkeep. This will require maintenance on your part or a monthly gym membership.
When it comes down to it, both free weights and machine weights have their benefits and disadvantages. The ultimate choice falls into your hands.
What are you willing to sacrifice and what are you willing to learn?
Do you want something where you need to pay attention 100% of the time? Or are you looking to tune-out while you work-out?
If you’re really looking for a solid strength training program, then working with a balance of both free weights and weight machines will give you the benefits of each.
If you’re not sure where to even start, then consult with a fitness professional and work with him or her to design and follow through a program that fits your needs, addresses your concerns and gives you enough variation where your body will constantly be challenged and constantly be improved.
Good luck, but more importantly, enjoy the journey.