Walk into The Result Factory and you won’t see many machines – a rower and a leg extension is about all you’ll find. Instead you’ll see endless racks, bars, plates and dumbbells. Walk into your nearest big box gym (like LA Fitness) and you’ll see a giant room filled with machines and a small area with some free weights. There has always been a debate about which is better and I will lay it out the pros and cons of each.
Pros of using machines
+ Easy to use: With pictures describing the correct usage, a machine is fairly simple for a beginner to do on his or her own without knowing much about form or technique.
+ Better isolation of muscles: When you use a machine you don’t have to engage your stabilizing muscles (the machine is doing that for you!) so you can isolate muscle groups more easily which can be helpful for building size (think bodybuilders) or for rehab (physical therapy, getting over an injury)
+ Convenient: You don’t need a spotter when you’re using a machine so if you’re working out on your own and want to “go heavy” you can do so on some machines without needing someone else to spot you. And you also don’t have to worry about changing out heavy plates and dumbbells as you adjust weight.
What this means on the flip side is that machines do not work your full range of motion and can’t mimic the body’s real (functional) movements. Which won’t help you build your strength and fitness for everyday or athletic activities. They also neglect your smaller stabilizing muscles which over time can lead to injury and bad posture.You also need to go to a gym. Unless you have machines at home, training yourself to workout with machines only will limit you in a situation when you don’t have access to a full gym.
Pros of free weights
+ Allows for functional movements and full range of motion: Since you’re not locked into a specific motion, you can move the way your body was intended to move, working the full range of motion that will build up your strength and athleticism.
+ Engages your stabilizers: Simply holding the weight is a workout in itself, because you have to engage your stabilizing muscles. This helps with building proper form and keeping your joints healthy. It will also build up some of the smaller muscles you didn’t even think about working out.
+ Full body work: Unlike machines, free weights allow you to do exercises like squats and deadlifts that work your entire body. So if you’re limited in time and are looking to get in some good work, you can do so by doing sets of full body exercises.
+ Do what you want when you want: With a pair of dumbbells you can do HUNDREDS of exercises from ANYWHERE! You can work your full body and all you need is a little bit of space!
So while the work you get from free weights is far superior (for most people’s goals), you only get the full benefit and minimize your risk of injury if you’re using proper form. To learn correct technique you’ll want to work with a trainer who is well-versed in this type of training who can ensure you’re lifting correctly, show you a variety of exercises, and be there to spot on some of the heavier work.
The bottom line is that everyone has different needs and you should pick a program that meets your goals and needs. For me, I use free weights 90% of the time using machines only when I really want to isolate a certain muscle group. The same is true for my clients – both professional athletes and everyday people looking to improve their fitness goals. We work on form and technique so they can all benefit from using free weights.