May 22, 2011

Which is better; free weights or machines?

It is another enduring fitness question: which is better, machines or free weights?  My unequivocal answer is….. it depends.
Free weight exercises include dumbbells, cables, barbells and resistance bands.  Machines are devices that have fixed lever arms and weight stacks that you can change by moving a pin.  
The major advantages with machines are their ease of use and their support.  For those new to exercise, machines are less intimidating than dumbbells and barbells.  The support of a machine can help you work around injuries or a weak joint, and eliminates the need for a spotter.  You can isolate a muscle without involving other muscle groups.  If you are in a hurry, it is much easier to move a pin than to load a barbell.
These advantages can also be disadvantages.  The support of the machine eliminates the work of other muscle groups.  This means you burn fewer calories, and the exercises do not mimic movements you do in “real life”.  In addition, if you are very large or small there is a good chance the machine will not fit right.  You are limited in the movements you can do, which can cause mental and physical boredom.  You may also get a false sense of safety and lift a weight that is too heavy.  Free weights can help with balance, and they build whole body strength.  However, they can be hard to learn, and the risk of injury is greater; it is easier to carry out an exercise with poor form when using free weights.
How do you know which is best for you? Research has supported the superiority of free weights for improving balance, coordination and muscle strength (1).  However, if you are new to resistance training or injured, machines may be your best bet, especially if you work out alone.  If your goal is pure strength either will work; your muscles respond to load regardless of the source.  Whichever you choose you can make the most of your gym time by working at an appropriate level of intensity: If you soar through your workouts with no sweat neither will give you results.   It is fine to choose both, mixing it up make it more interesting, but once you get past the beginner stage, free weights should make up the bulk of your resistance workout.


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