Free Weights vs. Machines
Experienced gym-goers often overlook weight training machines, claiming expertise in the weight room.
They argue that free weights, such as barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, are superior for building strength. This is primarily due to the increased muscle activation required for stabilizing and balancing the body during lifts and lowers.
In contrast, machines, with their stable bases, necessitate less muscle engagement throughout the exercise, potentially resulting in limited gains.
Is technique combined with muscle overload more crucial for achieving results than the choice between free weights or machines?
Researchers have approached this debate with a scientific lens in recent years, aiming to provide evidence-based insights that can settle the argument.
While most studies have found little disparity between the two forms of resistance, these results are based on a limited number of exercises, muscle groups, and varied combinations of reps, sets, and loads.
Consequently, the applicability of these findings in real-world scenarios is questionable, particularly among experienced gym-goers who are unimpressed by data derived solely from laboratory settings.
Recognizing the need for a study that compares the effects of free weights and machines within the context of a typical workout performed by the average exerciser, researchers from the University of Murcia in Spain, specifically from the faculty of Sports Sciences, conducted a study.
They enlisted 38 men with at least two years of weight training experience and subjected them to a workout regimen that closely mirrored exercises commonly practiced in gyms worldwide.
Divided into two groups, machines vs. free weights, the men trained three times a week for eight weeks following a routine that was identical in terms of intensity, frequency, number of sets (three), rest between workouts (48 hours), total volume (1,494 repetitions), length of rest between sets and list of exercises.
The only difference was whether they used a barbell or specific weight training machine.
After eight weeks, tests measuring muscle strength and size revealed little difference in the gains posted by both groups of exercisers.
These findings together suggest that free-weight and machine-based training modalities are similarly effective to promote strength and hypertrophy without increasing joint discomfort, said the researchers.
So how did the idea that free weights were a better option than machines become part of weight room lore?
The Spanish researchers acknowledge that several studies have demonstrated that exercises using free weights activate more muscles than the same exercises performed on machines.
Add that to the fact that training with free weights tends to release a greater surge in hormones associated with muscle growth, and it’s easy to see why free weights were considered superior at building strength and muscle.
But the researchers suggest that how the muscles react in the short term isn’t always a reflection of the end result.
Concerning the muscle activity theory traditionally used to favour free-weight exercises, it is imperative to note that higher muscle activity in an acute manner should not necessarily translate into greater long-term strength adaptations, the researchers said.
That’s great news for anyone who feels more comfortable training on machines vs. free weights.
It also opens up more exercise choices when the gym is busy.
Opting to use one of the under-utilized machines when there’s a lineup at the squat rack won’t compromise strength gains.
And since the often-weaker stabilizing muscles won’t be called upon to support your efforts, you’ll find you can safely push more weight on a machine than you can with free weights.
There is more than one reason to choose between machines and free weights.
Athletes trying to incorporate more sport-specific movements in their weight training program will find free weights offer more flexibility in movement patterns and the path the weight travels.
On the other hand, those same restrictions can result in fewer technique-related injuries, as machines uniquely guide exercisers through the optimum movement patterns.
The other great feature of machines is they can isolate a particular muscle group, which can help anyone recovering from an injury or addressing a specific muscle weakness.
Like most workout routines, the best choice of exercises and equipment is related to your overall goals.
The more specific the goal, the more specific the routine and the equipment used.
But for those of us who simply want to reap the benefits of added strength and power, and maybe even show off a muscular physique, don’t get stuck on the idea that free weights offer superior results to machines.
Go ahead and mix the two forms of resistance into your routine and reap the benefits they both have to offer.