It's a war with no end in sight. On the one side are people who view free weights as the only way to go. This school usually involves "hardcore" athletes, the likes of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strongmen.
On the other side of the debate are the "modernists", who prefer machines as their go-to equipment. This latter camp is often populated by people who want to "tone up", lose weight, or just don't like the thought of using free weights.
So, what's the verdict? Which side is right? Are machines or free weights better for building muscle and strength? Can't we all just get along?
We'll find out by the end of this blog post.
The Case For Machine Based Exercises
You've gotta admit it, the advent of many machine-based exercises has allowed even the most casual gym goes to flourish, in the sense of building up the necessary muscle mass, and even courage, to progress along the health spectrum.
A workout machine is a device that helps people to do work with more precision and accuracy. In other words, specificity. Many machines specialize in one type of movement, which is a good thing.
Here are some more arguments for why machines are so good.
Great For Beginners
You don't have to be an expert to get started with machine-based exercises. In fact, they're often recommended for beginners as a way to ease into a workout routine.
The main reason is that machines remove the element of the guesswork from your workout. With free weights, you have to worry about things like posture, balance, and which muscles should be doing the work.
With a machine, all you have to do is sit or stand in the right position and follow the instructions. This not only makes working out easier, but it also reduces your risk of injury.
Can Be More Intense
When done correctly, machine-based exercises can be just as intense as their free-weight counterparts. Even though many compound-type exercises exist, remember that machines are awfully specific in their trajectory and range of movement.
The key is to use a weight that challenges you but doesn't put you in danger of injury.
Another way to make machine-based exercises more intense is to do circuit training, which involves going from one exercise to the next with little rest in between.
This will keep your heart rate up and help you to burn more calories.
Machine-based exercises aren't just for beginners. In fact, they can be used by people of all fitness levels to target specific muscle groups.
If you want to focus on your chest, there's a machine for that. If you want to work on your legs, there's a machine for that too.
This level of specificity isn't possible with free weights, which is why many people view machines as being more versatile.
And yes, while they often specialize in one type of movement, cable pulldown stations are an excellent example of a highly versatile machine-based exercise that can be used to target almost every muscle group in the body.
Have you ever considered how many free weight exercises work? Gravity plays a huge part (as with all weight bearing exercises, technically), but they also lose tension just as easily.
This is why in specific exercises, your range is limited to a certain point, beyond which all tension disappears. Machines have no such problem. In fact, they're designed to keep the tension constant throughout the entire range of motion.
This is beneficial for two key reasons: firstly, it helps to build muscle more effectively; and secondly, it reduces your risk of injury.
Lower Risk Of Injury
Machine workout stations have a fixed movement range, which can be a great way to avoid unnatural training patterns from emerging. And because the path of movement is often more controlled, your risk of joint or muscle injury is reduced.
Start your workout with a lightweight to get a feel for the machine, and then gradually increase the weight as you become more comfortable.
Doing that is a proven recipe for longevity in the gym and will help keep you free from injury in the long run.
Pretty compelling reasons huh? Not unto free weights we go!
The Case For Free Weights
And now we come to the other side of the debate. No real athlete can call themselves that if they avoid free weights altogether, right? Here is what they excel at.
Greater Range Of Motion
While most machines have a fixed path of motion, free weights aren't limited by the same constraints. While using free weights, the world is your oyster in terms of the range of motion. This is great news for your muscles, as it allows them to develop in a more natural way.
In general, the greater the range of motion, the better- but with common sense in mind, of course. It makes no sense to try and extend the range of motion if the loss of resistance makes it futile.
Better For Functional Training- Incorporates Stabilizers
Functional training is all about replicating real-world movements in the gym. And what better way to do that than with free weights?
While machine-based exercises often isolate individual muscle groups, free weights force your muscles to work together in order to stabilize the weight. This more closely resembles how they have to work in everyday life, making free weights a great choice for functional training.
When you're new to working out, this is very evident. For instance, just think about the amount of effort you need to expend just to learn the path for the bench press. You need to stabilize the bar horizontally, in addition to pushing and controlling the decline.
No machine can really replicate the required stabilization and free weights are the clear winner in this case.
Affordability is a real-world consideration that most people will need to make. Not everyone has the same financial capability, meaning that what might be ideal for one person will require another person to improvise.
Free weights are great in this regard as you can pick up a bar and weight plates for far less than it would cost to purchase even just a single machine. If you're on a budget, free weights are the way to go.
Space And Portability
Another major advantage of a free weight setup is the small space requirement they need. Whereas a machine needs a dedicated space to be placed, and is usually stationary.
Free weights don't need a dedicated space for storage- just shove those plates under the bed, or in a close if it's tight. At the same time, they can be moved around easily. It might still be heavy and burdensome, but good luck fitting that cross trainer in the trunk of your car!
Best To Build Gargantuan Strength And Muscle Gains
You would be hard-pressed to find a single athlete who is solely machine trained to achieve the level of success that the most decorated ones do. Conversely, there are many bodies that have been forged from iron in an old-school way with free weights.
The takeaway here is that if you're looking to get big and strong, then you're going to need to bite the bullet and spend some time learning how to properly use free weights. They just allow you to lift more, there's no machine that can compare to that.
There isn't a single lat pulldown competition, but there are pullup, bench press, and deadlift records. Yes, machines do enable you to build a good degree of size and strength, but you'll never be able to truly hit your peak without the classic big lifts.
Makes You More Injury Averse
Yes, it is true that free weights are notorious for causing injuries, but you can get injured from just about anything, right? In a way, free weights can make you less likely to get injured, but under the condition that you're using good form.
Because free weights offer a greater range of motion, your muscles and joints are better protected. This is due to the fact that they're not being locked into a single plane of motion like they are with machines.
Plus, as we just discussed- stabilizers. These tiny tendons and muscles are integral to keeping it all together and do a pretty good job of it as long as you don't let your ego get in the way.
Is there a better type of equipment? Not necessarily. This is because both of them have strengths and weaknesses. Plus, the top athletes today scarcely work with only one type of equipment.
The best thing you can do is to learn to use both, as they each have a time and place. If you're just starting out, then it's probably a good idea to get comfortable with the basics of using machines. Then, to really start harnessing your body, move to free weights.
There is no standard operating procedure so to speak.
Combine both of them in your routine to reap the most benefits, but just be sure to have a nutritional and recuperation base that can support your gains.