A question I get asked on a very regular basis from those starting out with their resistance program is: “Should I use machines or free weights when I train?”
If you are a complete novice, then machines would be just that, a weight machine, oftentimes one that is attached with rope pulley systems, you often sit in them, basically any that you can’t physically take the weight off and handle it yourself and take it away from the machine.
Free weights would be the dumbbells, barbells, things like that.
That is typically when I get the question: “What should I use, free weights or machines?” or “Is one better than the other?”
The one common trait of both machines and free weights is that they are used to apply variable resistance to your muscles. I don’t consider cable and pulley devices such as lat pull down, triceps push down, and high/low cable pulley apparatuses machines in the strictest sense.
Cable and pulley devices actually change the direction of resistance only. For example, a triceps push down uses cables and pulleys to change the direction of the resistance from “straight down” (the resistance you feel if you are holding a barbell in your hands) to “straight up.”
Cable and pulley devices may look like machines, but mechanically speaking, they only change the direction of the resistance. This allows you to perform movements that would ordinarily be impossible to do otherwise with free weights. Cable and pulley devices are very simple from a mechanical standpoint, but allow you considerable degree freedom of movement.
Free weights are pretty straightforward: barbells, dumbbells, plates, and that’s about it. However, while they are simple, you can still get in an extremely effective workout with just free weights. Also to note, free weights have the advantage of being much more flexible, you can do just about any movement that your body will allow, working any muscle that you have (or don’t have yet) with free weights. You would need multiple machines to accomplish anywhere close to this.
Now, machines aren’t bad, they just don’t give you the freedom to adjust the exercise to suit you. Of course this can be good or bad. The nice thing about machines, is you can typically look at the picture on the machine and do it right the first time. Sure, you may have a little trial and error with the weight selection, but the overall movement you should be able to get pretty much the first couple times.
As an example, lets say you are doing machine curls. That’s pretty hard to mess up on a machine. However, if you are doing standing dumbbell curls with a dumbbell, there is much more room for error. Beginners will often go too fast, swing their back, fling their muscles, try and use momentum to get the weight up. As a result of the poor form, the user doesn’t get optimal results or even worse, can hurt themselves.
I’ll go into the machine’s vs free weights discussion more in my next post.