This is one question that will always cause controversy, no matter where you go and who you ask. The purists and traditionalists will always promote free weights, while some following a purely scientific approach will embrace the advantages of dedicated machines. What if I tell you that both are equally important and each has a role to play in your workout?
Before we start the discussion, it is important to understand what the difference between free weights and dedicated weight-training machines are.
Free weights are literally free in the sense that they can be moved around and used in a variety of seated and standing positions. Normally they refer to dumbbells and barbells in all their different forms.
Dumbbells refer to a set of weights, each consisting of a short bar with a weight on each end. Normally they are held in each hand and moved in different directions while making use of a variety of positions to perform specific exercises to train your body's different muscle groups. You normally find them on a weight rack with sizes varrying from a few pounds to sometimes over a hundred pounds.
Barbells refer to a single long bar with weights attached to each side. They are normally gripped in the middle by both hands and, like dumbbells, can be used in a variety of positions and angles. You also have the freedom to move the width of your grip around for different exercises and muscle groups. Barbells also come a variety of shapes and sizes (eg. short bar, EZ-bar, olympic bar) for dedicated grips and exercises.
Dedicated Weight-Training Machines
These machines refers to a piece of apparatus in a fixed position. Normally it has a stack of weights attached to a cable and one or more pulleys. The pulleys are fixed in different positions and heights for the different exercises, Cables follow these pulleys and are finally attached to a set of levers or interchangeable bars and grips. Depending on the exercise and muscle group, these machines let you perform exercises in standing, seated or lying position. An example of weight-training machine is the standing cable tricep pushdown machine.
You also get machines that make no use of cables or weight stacks, but get weighted down by adding barbells to the apparatus. An example of this is the lying leg-press machine where barbells are added to the sides for increased resistance.
Advantage Of Free Weights
As I already mentioned, many traditionalists and purists see weight-training machines as highly ineffective and even as a way of taking a shortcut. They are not completely wrong in their wholehearted support for free weights though.
The big argument in favor of free weights is that it train your major muscles using a full range of movement while activating your stabilizing and chore muscles as well. A huge amount of stress is placed on the main muscles being exercised, while many secondary muscles are trained as well in order to help stabilize and balance the body during the movement.
Exercises like the squat, deadlift and bench-press are used as the foundation to train your biggest muscle groups while developing chore strength as well. They are very effective and form the basis of many workout programs.
Research has also shown that these huge compound movements do not just exercise the major muscle goups, but also stimulate growth throughout the body. A very big advantage, especially if you reached a sticking point (plateau) in your training.
Usually they take some time to master, as you must get used to staying in a position that doesn't feel natural to you. It will probably take you time to get your balance right as well, as an exercise like the squat requires a fair amount balancing to be performed correctly. Your stabilizer and core muscle will take time to adapt, as they are not trained and strong enough to support these big movement at the start. You may find these muscles to get tired before the main muscles being trained gets exhausted.
Yes, it sounds daunting, but once mastered these exercises will prove invaluable and allow huge gains in strength and size. Most of your other free weight exercises can be just as taxing, but in general are not as difficult to master.
Advantage Of Dedicated Weight-Training Machines
Weight-training machines are a very good alternative or substitute for free weights, especially when you are unable to perform a specific free weight exercise.
In some cases you are unable to use heavy free weight movements due to some very valid reasons. You may be suffering from a temporary or permanent spinal injury. Anyone even vaguely familiar with spinal injuries, will realize how hazardous any stress on an already weakened spine can be. The amount of stress free weight exercises put your back under, completely rule out movements like squats and deadlifts.
Also, as you grow older, the tendons and ligaments between your bones start to deteriorate, making you at lot more susceptible to injury. Especially if you start training for the first time much later in life, without an already strengthened back and core muscles, you may be forced to stay away from any exercise that place unnecessary strain on your back, specifically your spinal cord.
It is in both these instances, that the benefit of using weight-training machines come into play. For example, you can use the leg-press machine to give your legs a thorough workout without putting your back at risk. Similarly, you can use the lat pull-down machine to exercise your back without placing unnecessary straining on your spinal cord.
Some may argue that these exercises are not as effective as their free weight alternatives. Yes, they may not be as "complete" in that they do not utilize support muscles like stabilizer and core muscles, but they can be just as effective in placing enough stress on the muscles being trained, stimulating growth and strength.
Machines also have a huge advantage in that you are able to use a much heavier weight with the support of a machine, recruiting a lot more muscle fibres in the process. You can easily train to failure (unable to perform another repetition) and use the slots and supports in a machine to safely put a weight to rest.
With free weights, you are unable to safely perform exercises like squats and deadlifts with a very heavy weight on you own without the assistance of a spotter (someone standing behind and helping you).
Another big advantage of machines is that due to their ability to hold you in position, many of them allow you to completely isolate a muscle when training. Isolation exercises allow you to focus all your energy and strength on just the target muscle, maximizing muscle fibre recruitment.
Doing flyes on peck deck machine is a perfect example of how effective isolation exercises can be. When correctly adjusted, you can train your chest in isolation while having a full range of movement to put emphasis on both the stretched and contracted part of the exercise.
Why Using Both Are So Effective
So when both type of exercises have so many advantages how do you choose? It's simple, you don't. You have both at your disposal, so why not use both to your advantage?
It will be easier to explain it point by point, so let's take an old-school and popular 3-step approach (you can read more about it here). It basically consists of 3 different exercises targeting 3 key areas.
- Your first exercise is a power movement, usually consisting of a compound movement with a heavy weight. Using a free weight is ideal for this type of exercise. The squat and bench press are both good examples of free weights using a moderate to heavy weight to properly overload the muscles and recruit the maximum amount of fibres.
- With your muscles now already exhausted, you need to start focusing on more targeted exercises, in this case movements where you muscles are completely contracted while under load. Machine exercises are especially well suited for "contraction" movements, since the weights of the cables are still pulling at the muscles and keeping them under stress while they fully contracted. This is often difficult to obtain with free weights, as at the top part of free weight exercises, your muscles end up in a rested position where there is little stress on the muscle. (Think about reaching the top of a flat bench dumbbell flye, where you can actually rest in this position).
- The third and final exercise in this approach, is one where emphasis is put on the stretch when you muscles are fully extended. When performing an exercise where your already blood filled muscles are stretched to a maximum, a process called Extreme Facial Stretching (EFS) takes place. (You can read more about it in detail here). The extra space created by this process allow room for your muscle fibre to grow and expand. Both free weights and machine exercises can effectively be used to create this stretched position. For some muscle groups machines will create a better stretch, while for others free weights will be a better option. This really is one scenario where you can take advantage of both free weights and machine variations depending on your requirements.
Clearly, both free weights and wight-training machines have their advantages and drawbacks.
If you are young, healthy and starting from scratch, your 3 cornerstone free-weight exercises (squat, deadlift and bench-press) are ideal to start with. They don't only build size and strength in your major muscle groups, but build all your stabilizer and core muscle. They also build a good foundation to work from as well.
When you are unable to perform them, the machine-weight training equivalents are just as effective, and as I already pointed out, may even have some advantages.
As for finishing off a workout with a 3rd or 4th set for a specific muscle group, I have already shown how both types of exercises can be equally effective, depending on what your goal is.
I hope this article have clearly illustrated that there is no winner and one is definitely not better than the other. You now should have some understanding and better guidelines to know when to use what.
And remember, as always, don't be afraid to experiment. It's the only way you will find out what works best for you. We all respond differently so don't worry if your routine differs from others. Do what works for you!
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Until next time, take care and let me know if there is a specific new topic you would like me to discuss.