The debate over the most ideal training modality between free weights and resistance training machines has raged on for years and both sides still have very strong advocates and very strong critiques. Ask a bodybuilder, a personal trainer, a powerlifter and a football player (or other major sport athlete) which is the better route to reach your fitness goals and you very likely won’t get four of the same answer.
Truth be told, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle as both free weights and resistance training machines have some distinct advantages and both have some potentially serious drawbacks.
Many strength sports athletes would tell you that free weights are the only way to go – and if your primary goal is getting as strong as humanly possible, they are probably right.
Barbells and dumbbells allow you to go throw a greater range of motion than most machines and require your body to call a variety of additional muscles into play to complete a movement.
Free weights also provide you with more versatility – when using free weights you can perform your movements how you see fit. You can perform movements like curls and presses while standing up to call even more overall muscle tissue into activation and burn more calories in the process.
Free weights do have a down side though – if you have poor form or if you don’t know how to properly perform a movement using free weights can put you at an increased risk for injuries.
And in addition to creating an injury risk poor form can actually diminish your chances for achieving optimal results from a specific movement (using a swinging motion during curls can dramatically reduce their effectiveness, etc.).
The best way to combat the cons of free weights is to take the time to learn how to do each movement properly. By using the correct form and pushing yourself (without exceeding your physical limitations) you can reap great rewards from training with free weights.
Resistance Training Machines
The biggest benefit of machines is that they don’t carry the potential dangers associated with free weights. Resistance machines provide a very controlled range of motion and allow the user to target a specific muscle or group of muscles with the appropriate form (it’s also borderline impossible for you to drop a weight from a machine on your toe when you are returning it to the rack as you could with a dumbbell).
Most machines also have a fairly low learning curve, making them very easy for just about anyone to use. The weights tend to be clearly labeled and there is little to no chance that you could create an imbalance in load like you could when loading a barbell.
Resistance machines are also a good option for people who have been dealing with injuries, joint problems or who are currently rehabbing.
The primary downside to machines is the isolation factor. When you are using a weight machine you don’t get the added benefit of stabilizing muscles getting worked which can limit the overall effectiveness of a movement. With machines you are also limited by the construction – if the only curl machine your gym has is a seated curl you can’t take that move standing without moving to the free weights.
In a perfect world you won’t be limited to choosing one modality of training over the other, but have the opportunity to use both free weights and machines in your workouts.
Using free weights for overhead presses, triceps extensions and curls allows you to add a great deal of variety to your workout and maximize results while using machines for specific and hard to perform movements like cable flies and crossovers can help you get the most complete workout with the least chance of injury.
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