Free Weights VS Machine Weights

Posted by Michelle on September 17, 2013

There are pros and cons to using free weights and weight machines.  Both are forms of strength training, which is any exercise that involves working against resistance.  This category also includes using your body weight, cable machines, kettlebells or bands.  

Whether you choose to use free weights, weight machines or one of the other forms of resistance depends on several factors.






What’s Your Goal?

If you want improve speed or power, you may want to choose free weights over machines.  It's a lot easier to do ballistic lower body exercises with free weights and body weight, as well as imitate explosive upper body movements with free weights and kettlebells.

If you are looking to improve your range of motion for every day movements, free weights win out again.  When you use free weights, you're recruiting more muscles, stabilizers, and the range of motion mimics real life activities. (Like squatting down to pick something up, or reaching up overhead to put something on a shelf). 

One study comparing free form weight exercise to fixed form weight exercise found the participants gained 58 percent more strength and 196 percent more balance using the free form one.

Free weights also provide an opportunity for better muscular development  on a targeted area of the body.  A study comparing the free weight bench press and the smith machine press found greater medial deltoid muscle activation when using free weights.   

But, if you want to “tone” or just look good, you could get by on machines… especially since machines can isolate very specific muscles that are difficult to work using free weights or body weight, like the thigh adductor machine or the outer head of your quadriceps' muscle using the leg extension machine.

In certain circumstances, machines are better to use during rehabilitation or after some surgeries since they do not require you to engage your core and can allow you to focus on the body part(s) that you are able to work. Eventually, you should try more than just machines so you don’t ignore your muscle stabilizers or core.   

Sometimes, you need a machine—whether plate loaded or a pulley system to help you with an exercise.  Not everyone can do a pull up, but everyone can try an assisted pull up.  Not everyone can do a pushup, but everyone can use the chest press machine.  This is why machines tend to be better for beginners.  It helps you build strength to a certain point where you can try other forms of resistance. 

Do You Have Musculoskeletal Issues?

Musculoskeletal pain can involve the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or nerves.  It can come from trauma like a sudden injury or develop slowly over time because of an overuse injury.  A combination of stretching, resistance bands, body weight exercises and even aquatic exercises are the best places to start.  But, you should find a licensed physical therapist to discuss your treatment options and take you through the exercises.  What is prescribed varies widely depending on your injury and what options that physical therapist feels is in your best interest. 

What Do You Have Access To?

Not everyone belongs to a large public gym that offers a variety of equipment. Or, maybe you do have access to a gym... but, it’s a small, private one like at the office or in an apartment complex.  Usually, those contain just weight machines and cardio equipment.

If you don’t want to join a gym, you can always buy some free weights and work out at home.  But that cost can add up quickly, as you’ll need different weights for the various muscle groups.  You'll also have to buy larger weights as you get stronger.  

A cheaper way to go is get a variety of inexpensive equipment: like a couple of fitnesss bands, a fitness ball, and challenging pair of weights.  There are plenty of body weight exercises that you can do at home. Or, learn how to turn gym exercises into ones you can do from home.     

Which One Do you Like?

The best exercise is the one you can do on a regular basis.  Don’t force yourself to work out on machines if you rather use your body weight.  Some people prefer a cable pulley station to free weights... or reistance bands to machines.    

Research shows that women are more likely to stick to exercise if they feel confident doing it and have high self worth.  In order to obtain that, you have to feel comfortable with the type of exercise you are doing.

As long as you are doing something that forces your body to work against resistance, you are "strength" training.  And a combination of regular, progressive strength training and moderate intensity cardio exercise is the best for your overall long term health.

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