So you are you looking to bulk up? In order to grow muscles, you have to engage in some form of resistance training. And what’s a better place to find weights than at a gym. So, you walk into a gym and you are immediately faced with a dilemma. Should you train with free weights, machines or a combination of both?
This is a decades-long debate that is sure to still run at every gym. You will also find a vast majority of people in strong support of training solely with free weights while others rely on a combination of free weights and machines. And a very small minority trains with machines only. It could be a bit overwhelming in deciding what equipment to use and hearsay doesn’t help either. So, should you focus on free weights or machines? Is one superior over the other? Let’s compare both approaches.
Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, medicine ball – basically weights not attached to an apparatus. And as such provide free motion throughout the exercise. Hence the name free weights. With machines, you are limited to a specific range of motion. You can only contract and relax your muscles, concentric contraction and eccentric contractions, within the range allowed by the machine. Rendering the movement to follow a fixed range of motion – which in most cases will limit the full movement potential of a joint. While most machines come with adjustable settings, you will never get the natural flow in your range of motion with a machine as you would get with free weight.
Also, since you are not tied to a fixed position your body will have to balance the weight as you perform your reps. Your body performs this additional task of balancing itself by recruiting ancillary muscles called stabilizer muscles. Think of these as the foundation of a house. Like the foundation stabilizes a house, your stabilizer muscles keep you steady, upright, balanced and coordinated in your movements. And when you train on machines you are usually seated or placed in a fixed position. Sadly, as a result, your body won’t recruit the stabilizing muscles or will use it to a much lesser degree.
Another perk of using free weights is that almost all free weight exercises are compound exercises. Meaning that they work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. So, you get the most bang for your buck. Take a squat for example, when performed correctly it pretty much works your entire lower body – including your quads, hams, adductor magnus, glutes, calves and even your core.
On a side note big movements like squats, deadlifts, most press exercises, pull-ups, chin ups among others are considered functional movements. Functional exercise target movements that make your everyday life easier. The is especially good for older folks and individuals recovering from an injury. Functional training with free weights will improve your overall balance, coordination, muscle size, bone density and this will translate into everyday benefits. So, you will be better protected against injuries like slips and fall, getting in and out of a chair, using the toilet/shower, moving stuff, or picking items off the ground.
So, should you use machines at all then? The short answer is Yes – absolutely. Machines have their own advantages. For one, machines are easier to learn and are less prone to injury. If you are just starting out, you may want to first start off with machines. If you are recovering from an injury or are pregnant you should train more with machines. With free weights, lean a little too far this way or that, and you may end up seriously hurting yourself. You can even sustain a lifelong injury.
When training with free weights, the primary focus should be on keeping a good form throughout the motion. You should never sacrifice your form for lifting big. This is easier said than done. Walk into any gym and you are likely to see a large portion of individuals lifting for ego. Meaning they have a bad form and are solely focused on pushing more weights. This is a recipe for disaster! Machines, on the other hand, are less prone to injury as you are usually fixed into a position and can’t go beyond the allowed range of motion. So, you can’t really hurt yourself.
Machines are also good for targeting a specific muscle. Almost all bodybuilders incorporate machine training in their program because of this reason. With free weights, after a few sets, your body will feel fatigued. And it will become increasingly difficult to concentrate just on the target muscle. You could then easily hop on to a machine and work the target muscle in isolation. That’s why you see most bodybuilders use machines at the end of their training session. First, they fatigue the muscle with free weights and then use machines to isolate the target muscle.
If you are new to the gym, recovering from injury or are pregnant you should consider focusing on machines rather than free weights. Machines allow you to train in a fixed range of motion, so they are essentially using good form by default (for the most part). As your situation and form improve, you can incorporate more free weights gradually. But don’t remove machines from your repertoire altogether. One of the best ways to train, is to use free weights to fatigue the muscle and then jump on to a machine to finish the job.