Free weights vs machines has been a battle waged between gyms and gym rats alike. Machines have been slammed and bashed for so many years. Free-weights have been deemed dangerous and are generally avoided by most beginners. Let’s go over the pros, cons and myths of free weights vs machines.
Free Weights vs Machines
“Nevertheless, when any such outright bullshit gets published in a supposedly scientific journal, which it frequently does, it is then accepted as proven fact by almost all scientists and a large number of other idiots.” – Arthur Jones
Exercise machines have been around for a long time. Form becomes a moot issue because the design restricts the user to it’s range of motion. This means if the machine is a shoulder press, there is no risk of doing it wrong or dropping the bar.
- Machine exercises have little to no learning curve since they force you into a fixed range or motion
- There is no risk of losing balance or dropping a heavy weight. Injury due to machines is very low
- Machines don’t require spotters, therefore making them more convenient to reach failure with
- They are easier to use. Simply put the pin on the weight you want and you’re good to go
- Not all machines are created equal. Some machines of the same exercise may feel heavier at the same weight
- They take up a lot of space. Machines aren’t very practical for a home gym
- Not every gym has the same machine. If you change gyms, you have to readjust to their machines
“The deadlift is more functional in that it’s very hard to imagine a more useful application of strength than picking heavy shit up off the ground.” – Mark Rippetoe
Barbells and dumbbells are usually what people think of when referring to free weights. Free weights have been the pinnacle of weight training for many years. Free weights are often referred to as a more manly method of exercise since they can be swung violently and slammed.
- Easily access. You can do a many exercises with a barbell or dumbbells alone
- Core muscles are used more with squats and deadlifts than they are with machines such as the leg press
- Barbells and dumbbells are easy to store and convenient for a home workout
- Free weights have a huge learning curve since proper form and technique depends on the user
- Stability is the job of the user so loss of balance and dropping of weights is a much bigger threat
- The free weight section of a gym is usually packed and is getting smaller these days due to cardio equipment
- Free weights are harder to handle. Racking dumbbells and fitting/removing plates from a barbell is annoying
- Free weights require spotters making going to failure difficult and undesirable for most
Free weights vs machines has been a great topic for the new “functional” training fad. Machines have been bashed for being more isolated than free weights, using less stability, etc. Free weights on the other hand have been demonized as dangerous and too complicated.
Myth – Machines are for pussies that can’t handle real weight.
Truth – Depending on the machine, machines are actually more demanding on the muscles since stability isn’t a factor. On a free weight exercise, as one begins approaching failure, their form usually starts to break and stops them from getting any further. With a machine, form isn’t a factor, strength is isolated from skill.
Myth – Free weights build “stabilizer” muscles while machines neglect them.
Truth – There really is no such thing as specific stabilizer muscles. The muscles at work are the ones that are used to stabilize you during an exercise. Stability is a neurological adaptation, not a muscular one. Having to balance weights has no advantage and only leaves room for injury.
Myth – Free weights are dangerous and should only be for pros
Truth – Free weights are more dangerous than machines because the risk is greater. Driving a car is dangerous as well, but there are ways to make it safer. Starting with lower weight and working on form before going too heavy can reduce risk of injury greatly. Barbells aren’t the devil some people make them out to be!
Myth – Machines are isolation workouts, they don’t work out as many muscles as free weights do
Truth – There is some truth to this. Bent over rows with dumbbells or a barbell for example will target the lower back as well. Seated rows will not. Squats engage the core muscles more than leg press will. Those are pretty much the exceptions. A chest press machine will work chest, triceps and a little bit of your shoulders. This is not an isolation exercise.
Myth – Machines aren’t as effective as free weights because they’re easier to lower. You can just drop down.
Truth – Yes, that’s true if someone is neglecting their exercise. You have to control the drop of a barbell, so people usually lower it slowly. There is no reason for someone to let the chest press machine free fall back to base. Lifting any weight, whether machine or free weight slowly is always best. This helps keep form together, works out the negative and prevents any chance of injury.
Free Weights vs Machines Winner
I use both machines and free weights. I find myself using machines more than I do free weights. Machines, I believe do everything free weights do, sometimes better and definitely with out the risks, but free weight do have a place in my workout. Call me a bitch if you want, but the gym rat value system doesn’t shape my workouts, effectiveness does. I find machines to be more effective for what I need. However, I do have a barbell and dumbbells at home that I use whenever I can’t go to the gym.
Don’t give in to the myths or allow gym ethics to shape your decision. Machines and free weights have their pros and cons. Choose your destiny and don’t be afraid to switch around until you find a system that works best for you!