Stepping into the gym for the first time or after a long hiatus can be daunting, especially if you don’t have a training or exercise program. With so many machines, free weights, strength training exercises, and Instagram loading you with misinformation, it can be hard to figure out if free weights vs. machines are going to be best for you and your goals. We’re going to dive right in and talk about if you should be incorporating free weights or weightlifting machines into your workout.
In the simplest form, free weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells, or loaded barbells, provide resistance which is moved against gravity. Free weights take into account your balance and coordination, while also incorporating multiple muscle groups. A study published in the Journal of Strength And Conditioning found that free-weight exercises that stimulate multiple muscle groups at one time, aka compound movements, such as the squat, deadlift, power cleans, and good mornings, increases testosterone production, strength, and muscle mass [R].
Exercise machines, do not consider multiple muscle groups, stabilizing muscles, or joints for the most part. Although they do require some movement from secondary muscles to perform an exercise, machines are designed for muscle group isolation. Therefore, free weights activate more muscle groups, joints, and will engage your core, more so than machines.
Machines are fantastic for isolated movements, emphasizing and focusing on one specific muscle group. An example would be the seated leg lift, which focuses on your quadriceps, or a seated preacher curl, isolating the biceps. Machines are great for full muscle development as you can contract and hold certain muscles in static position and add several variations to your exercises, accelerating muscle growth. If your training is focused on bodybuilding or developing certain muscle groups machines will be crucial to your overall physique and body composition.
Free Weights Vs. Machines
Your muscles were designed to overcome the pull of gravity, rather than work against machine resistance. Functional strength incorporates movements such as squatting, pulling weight from the ground, and using your body according to the way it has evolved over time. Free weights such as barbells and dumbbells will help in building strength and size, with regard to functionality. Machines however also have their place in your training program for isolated movements and in building a solid physique.
Good bodybuilding and resistance training programs should include a mix of free weights and machines, with no more than 30% of the training requirement which machines. Free weights offer a more unstable training environment, which enhances muscle recruitment, whereas machines do not, excluding pulleys or cables.
Free weights provide isotonic resistance, which provides the same amount of resistance throughout the full range of motion of an exercise. This does not always match the strength curve of the muscle; that is, the constant resistance throughout the range of motion offered by free weights does not always match the strength of a muscle, which varies throughout the range of motion. Some machines use “cam” pulley systems, elastics, hydraulics, and pneumatic resistance, which may better match the strength curves of typical movements.
Despite the potential benefits of training with machines, training with free weights may allow for greater recruitment of muscle mass. A major difference between training with free weights vs. weightlifting machines is that training with most machines provide a very stable environment, whereas training with free weights requires more stabilization and balance, which may result in greater recruitment of muscle.
There are however some movements, which may be harder to isolate or recruit with free weights without the use of machines, such as the lats with a lat pulldown or triceps in a tricep pushdown.
Your muscle is unaware of what type of resistance it is working against to overcome. Therefore, it’s logical to think that resistance is simply resistance. But resistance that comes from varying angles, as opposed to resistance with no need of balance, coordination, working along one plane of motion, will result in less muscle development. Using free weights compared with more stable machines results in greater muscle activation
Free Weights Vs. Machines: Takeaway
Your body has evolved to work against the pull of gravity. Free weights will recruit more stabilizing muscles, joints, and balance to move the weight as intended to produce greater gains in strength and mass. Free weights tend to mimic functional movement patterns more closely helping develop strength in applicable formats to everyday use. Machines offer benefits in muscle isolation and development of specific muscle groups to overcome muscle and postural imbalances, as well as improve physique. Overall your training program, should incorporate both machines and free weights for the best possible outcome.
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