What is the difference between free weights and machines, and which are best for your training?
One of the most common questions in fitness is: what’s better: free weights or machines?
We’ll the answer is not always clear cut. So let’s talk a little about both to help you answer that question.
Let’s start with some differences. Free weights have no dictated path or range of motion. When you’re lifting a free weight, you have to dictate the path that it goes, whereas machines are on rails. Weight machines have a predetermined range of motion and provide better control. Because free weights have no dictated path individuals have to use more of what are called stabilizer muscles. Stabilizer muscles help to balance and control the range of motion, where machines use the rails to actually stabilize the range of motion. Because free weights are harder to control they work on balance, synchronization, and stability more than machines.
Besides stability, free weights provide a greater variety of angles and exercises. For example a chest press machine will usually only have one position/path of motion. A multi-position bench can be moved in 8 or 10 different heights providing more variation. In addition dumbbells (which are free weights) allow you to rotate your hands in various positions also changing the angle of pull on your muscles. So there’s a greater variety of angles when you’re using free weights. While there’s a greater variety of angles, machines are effective at isolating muscles and make losing control almost impossible.
One of the reasons machines are better at isolating is because they are almost always done seated, whereas free weights are performed in a standing environment. When we sit we take many muscles out of play, especially the core. In addition, when we do activities of daily living and/or sports we almost never do strenuous things from a seated position. Free weights more mimic athletic activities and strenuous activities of daily living (i.e. yard work).
In addition, free weights are much more economical. A bench and a set of dumbbells isn’t too expensive and will provide you with a lot of options. For most individuals they don’t have the space or money to outfit their home with 10-15 different pieces of exercise equipment.
Pros of free weights
- More economical/take up less space
- Effective for improving functional strength/activities of daily living
- Greater use of stabilizer and core muscles
- Help improve balance/coordination/athleticism
Cons of free weights
- Harder to learn
- Changing weights can be more time consuming
- Potentially more dangerous if spotter isn’t available
Pros of weight machines
- Does a good job at isolating individual muscles
- Easier to learn especially for beginners and/or those with poor motor control
- More efficient workout time
Cons of weight machines
- Less functional/improvements in sports performance
- Cost/space prohibitive
- Limited in maximizing overall fitness
- Less effective for overall strength/strengthening body as a unit
As you can see there are benefits to both. I would typically give the edge to free weights for long term fitness improvements and use machines occasionally. While I would give the edge to free weights machines can be effective for those just starting out, have limited time, and/or poor motor control.
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