Should I Use Machines or Free Weights?

Walk in to any fitness center, and you’ll see lots of machines taking up space – from treadmills, bikes and ellipticals to weight machines that seem to be medieval torture devices, seemingly working every muscle in the body. What do all of them do? Do you need all of those machines?

If walking into a gym with lots of machines is intimidating enough,walking into a gym without any machines is even more so! What do you do with all that stuff? All you see are free weights, and maybe some bars, ropes, boxes, and other, different looking, torture devices.

Is one better than the other? Will machines get you better results? Or will free weights?

As with everything related to your health, the answer is, “It depends”. It depends on where you are in your fitness journey: your physical abilities and what you know about exercising.


Pros & Cons of Using Machines

Machines are great for folks who don’t want to think when they’re working out.
Machines lock your movement into a specific plane of motion; whatever muscle group you’re using, the machine will focus all its force on that muscle group, and the muscle that you’re working in that exercise will get stronger.

Because of the stabilization that the machine provides, doing the same movement with a machine will allow you to lift/press/pull more weight than you would be able to with free weights.

But machines are designed to fit ‘most’ bodies.; meaning that folks who deviate from the norm might feel that the machine is either too big or too small; and that can lead to unnecessary muscle strain, or potentially an injury.

I see this a lot with women who are petite using the elliptical trainer; they start to get hip and knee issues because the foot base is too wide.

Even though most machines are adjustable to account for different body sizes, sometimes they don’t have enough flexibility, and as an observer at the gym, I see all too often that folks don’t take the time to adjust the machines before hopping on to do their exercise.

Pros & Cons of Using Free Weights

Conversely, the nice thing about using free weights is that they’re free to move in whatever direction your body moves them, and in whatever plane of motion feels comfortable for the exerciser. So, they are adjustable to any body size.

However, there are two things to consider when you use free weights:

  1. You need to have a plan
  2. You need to know what you’re doing/how you’re moving

Have a plan –  Although it’s not entirely advisable, one could just go down the row of machines (and some gyms have machines set up in an organized way to produce a great total body circuit), performing one or two sets of as many reps as possible, and not have to think too much about what to do next.

What am I going to do next? I’m going to use the next machine!

Versus using free weights, there is no guide.

Folks who typically use free weights don’t wing it. They approach their workout with a plan: either in writing, or it’s all in their head. But either way, they know what they’re going to do next; and if they don’t, you can usually spot them walking around kind of lost, or spying another gym goer who looks like they have a plan.

Additionally, as I mentioned above, you won’t be able to lift/press/pull as much weight with free weights. But is that a bad thing?

Know what you’re doing – See, when you’re using free weights, you’re using your entire body. And free weights activate the small stabilizing muscles that we count on to have good core strength, balance, agility and control. Getting strong with machines is great – but how often are we pushing something away from us while our back is braced against something secure?

So, free weights teach your muscles how to work together verses in isolation.

But what’s more important about using free weights, is that if you’re not being mindful of how your body is moving, you can really hurt yourself – because when you’re strength training with free weights, you’re not just working the muscle that’s moving. Your entire body works together to create stabilization and core strength from your feet to the top of your head.

And if you’re not being mindful of how your body is moving, you can accidentally pull a muscle, or tweak a joint.

Conclusion

Both free weights and machines are good tools for building strength. If you’re a beginner, it’s probably a good idea to use machines until your muscles are strong enough to have the control to work with free weights. I know – that’s kind of a weird thing to say. but if you haven’t strength trained before (or if it’s been a while) machines are a great place to start.

Now that doesn’t mean that you HAVE to start with machines – if you don’t have machines available to you, you can start with free weights, but if you’re going to do that, I highly recommend spending some time learning proper form.

The BEST way to learn proper form is to go to a class (if you’re strapped for cash) or, you’ll get better and faster results if you spend some time one on one or in a small group personal training setting.

So, which should you use?

Free weights give you the most flexibility. But if you’re not exactly sure what you’re supposed to be doing and why, machines are probably a safer bet.


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