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Strength Training: Free Weights vs. Resistance Machines!

Dumbbells
Photo by jerryonlife via flickr

You decided that it is time to start lifting weights, so you joined a gym.  Now you are not sure where to start.  Some of your friends say that free weights are the only way to go, while others only use the machines.  So, which should you choose?

For years now a heated debate has raged over just this question and both sides have arguments with merit.  Both free weights and resistance machines build strength.  However, there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

What are the advantages of using free weights?
There are many good reasons why free weights might work better for you than resistance machines.  Here are some of the advantages:

  1. More versatile: You can work practically any muscle through almost any angle and range of motion, which is great for coming up with an enormous variety of exercises.
  2. Less bulky and cheaper: Machines tend to be expensive and bulky.  A basic set of dumbbells and barbells, on the other hand, take up a lot less space and won’t hurt your pocketbook as much.  In fact, a simple pair of adjustable dumbbells is enough to allow you to perform an impressive array of strength training exercises.
  3. Improves balance and coordination: Unlike a machine, lifting free weights requires balance and coordination because there is nothing to guide your movement.  Your muscles not only have to work to lift the weights, they have to work to keep the weights stable as well.
  4. Recruits more muscle groups: While machines isolate specific muscles, free weights use more muscles for each exercise because they require additional muscles for stabilization.  As a result, lifting free weights may promote quicker and better strength gains, since more muscles are worked with each exercise and in slightly different ways.

What are the disadvantages of using free weights?
Even though free weights have many advantages, they also have some disadvantages.

  1. May require a spotter: With light weights you should be fine, but safely lifting heavy weights requires a spotter.
  2. More potential for injuries: Weights sometimes slip while being picked up, exercised with or put away, potentially resulting in injury.
  3. Proper technique is essential: It is important to learn how to lift free weights correctly to prevent strain or injury.  And it takes time to master lifting techniques, especially if you will be lifting heavy weights.  If that is your goal, consider hiring an exercise specialist to show you how to lift properly and to work with you on several occasions to insure that you have the technique mastered.

What are the advantages of resistance machines?
Machines definitely have their place in the strength training world.  Here are some of their advantages:

  1. Easy to use: Machines guide your movements, which makes it easier to learn to use them properly. They can also be adjusted quickly and easily.
  2. Safer: Weights are held in place by stacks.  That reduces, but doesn’t eliminate the risk of injury due to improper form.  It also eliminates the chance of injury due to a dropped weight.
  3. Muscles are isolated more efficiently: Machines allow you to target specific muscles through their full range of motion without using other muscle groups for stabilization.

What are the disadvantages of resistance machines?
Of course, machines do have some disadvantages as well:

  1. Not functional to everyday movements: Machines target specific muscles, while in our day-to-day activities we use multiple muscle groups together.
  2. Some machines don’t fit: Some machines might not fit all body sizes.
  3. Need a variety of machines: You need multiple machines to workout all your muscles and obtain a good workout.  That can take up a lot of space.
  4. Expensive: Machines cost a lot, which means that to get access to most of them, you need a gym membership.

So, which one should I choose?
Safety is the number one priority when lifting weights.  So, if you are new to lifting, a recreational athlete or an elderly person, you should probably stick to machines for most of your exercises.  They are safer.

However, if you lift weights regularly, the best thing to do is to incorporate both free weights and resistance machines into your workout.  The different styles of exercise equipment challenge your muscles in different ways.

The bottom line
There truly is no right answer for everyone.  You should use whatever equipment is available to you that you can use safely and comfortably because both free weights and resistance machine will get you stronger.  The important thing is that you lift weights!

Comments (6)

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  1. Michael says:

    I actually always was curious about this topic. Wasn’t sure which was better. This helps to shed some light. Thank you.

  2. Maria Isabel says:

    Very good information. I have been doing resistance machines but I will get to the free weights one of these days.

  3. […] Strength Training: Free Weights vs. Resistance Machines! […]

  4. Kimberly (berly6412) says:

    Just wondering if you have any suggestions for a beginning weight training program for the whole body. Or free web sites with programs that you think are good.

    Thanks

  5. Talli van Sunder says:

    @Kimberly For beginners I would recommend starting off with the weight machines, because you are less likely to injure yourself and use incorrect posture.

    If you are new to weight training it is best to exercise with a partner that is more knowledgeable until you are comfortable with the exercises. And if that isn’t an option you can hire a personal trainer for a few sessions to show you the machines and help you work out an individualized program according to your goals.

  6. Ian Thorton says:

    Thanks for posting this article. A lot of lifters will benefit from this. The beginners will definitely find this article helpful.

    To find out about how to do weight training without a spotter, you may want to consider reading the article on this site.
    http://worldfitnessnetwork.com/2009/08/tips-for-training-without-a-spotter-the-big-7/

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