By Michael Ong
Published Friday, October 5, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
A few days ago, I walked into a new gym that opened down the street from my house. The place is quite nice, but it has a very small free weight area, which initially discouraged me—until I toured the machine area. It was filled with the latest cardiovascular and weight-training machines, and was very impressive both in machine quality and quantity.
The fitness industry has come a long way since the first exercise machines hit the gyms. It used to be that the only machines you could find in a gym were the leg extension and lat pull-down. Today, you can find machines that work every part of your body. The science behind the design, ergonomics and efficiency of these state-of-the-art machines is impressive. Yet, as advanced and impressive as they are, they do have their limitations.
In short, both free weights and machines have their pros and cons. And despite all the technological advances, there remain some basic, substantial differences between machines and free weights when doing resistance training.
Free weights include barbells, dumbbells and now even kettlebells. They are not anchored, tethered or bolted to any other piece of equipment or frame. Because of this, the direction of resistance is always going to be vertical, or the opposite direction of the gravitational pull. In addition, the path that the weight takes is controlled by the user and their body. In other words, where the free weight exercise starts, stops and the entire path in between is up to the user. The only limitations: the ground and the user’s range of motion, which can be an issue, as some users choose to exceed the body’s natural range of motion.
Free weights provide constant weight. In other words, there is no mechanical advantage to make the weight easier to lift. Resistance increases or decreases only when the user’s skeletal system and body position move or change. For example, when doing a pushing exercise, the easiest part of the exercise is at full extension, when the skeletal joints are “locked out” and supporting most of the weight from the muscles.
Free weights can be used to either isolate particular muscles or engage many muscles, like when doing compound exercises, which also involve multiple joints. The barbell squat is a great compound exercise that incorporates the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder joints, and all the muscles in between. As mentioned earlier, the user dictates the path and range of motion during a free weight exercise. Because of this, if you’re going to be doing a compound exercise, I believe it’s better to use free weights. (I’ll explain more on this later.)
The benefits of using free weights include:
- The path of motion is solely determined by exerciser;
- The direction of resistance is vertical;
- Weight is constant;
- There’s no mechanical advantage;
- They are better for compound exercises; and
- They recruit more secondary and stabilizer muscles.
The first machines had weight stacks with cables attached to a wheel or a cam. Now, machines can be plate loaded and are engineered with mechanical joints that mimic our own. These mechanical joints and cable systems allow the user to lift the weight in various directions, mimicking the body’s own range of motion.
Unlike free weights, machines can provide resistance in any direction. The cable and pulley system or cam (wheel) system can be engineered in many different configurations so that you can engage the weight in virtually any plane. Because of this cable and pulley system, the tension can be either constant or varied. The cam or wheel will provide some “let off” at some point in the movement. One of the benefits to this is that it can facilitate better muscle contraction.
Another important aspect of a machine: Both the path and range of motion are dictated by it. The range of motion equals the start and end points of an exercise. The path of motion is the route that the exercise movement takes. A machine will always have the same start and end points and, with some exception based on the type of machine, will always take the exact same path, which can be both good and bad. It’s good because it creates a low potential for injury, since it’s impossible to exceed the machine’s range and path of motion. It’s bad because it does not require much mental vigor to go from point A to point B.
However, if you’re doing compound exercises, the lack of mental vigor could actually be a hindrance. As mentioned earlier, a compound exercise involves multiple joints and muscles, and requires balance, stability and tempo. A machine can often lead the user to neglect some of these important aspects. For example, when performing a barbell squat, if done correctly, the descent into the squat position from the standing position should keep the weight over the hips as opposed to the knees. To ensure this is happening, the individual performing the exercise is constantly fine-tuning their movement and positioning by way of balance and weight distribution. All the smaller stabilizer and support muscles are being activated and sending information to your brain. This is necessary to correctly and safely accomplish the lift. But a machine often removes this feedback and muscle activation. This is not to say that you can’t get a good squat workout by way of a machine, but if you want to get the fullest benefit of a squat, the barbell is the way to go.
Lastly, the idea that machines are only for light workouts or for muscle-defining exercises is antiquated. Although you can still accomplish these things, modern exercise machines afford the user plenty of resistance. Furthermore, plate-loaded machines will accommodate as much weight as you care to lift. So you can still train “heavy” on some of these machines, and you won’t require a spotter.
The benefits of using machines include:
- They’re safe and very user-friendly;
- They work well for isolating muscles;
- Users can train heavy or light;
- They can benefit those with a limited range of motion;
- They’re less intimidating for beginners; and
- You don’t need a spotter.
Two Is Better than One
So which is better: free weights or machines? Neither! Both provide a beneficial way to perform resistance training, and each comes with its own unique benefits. So you can achieve a great workout with either. In fact, using a combination of both can provide a nice change to your normal routine and even raise its intensity a bit. Anything that motivates someone to start and continue exercising is beneficial, and having more options for how to do that will leave less room for excuses.
Note: The author would like to acknowledge Fitness 1 Gym in Phoenix for the use of their facility.
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