The argument about whether free weights or machines are better for getting results is passionate on both sides. You need results, so we breakdown the argument from both sides. We’ll examine the facts and then make some decisions about what is best for the results you are looking for. Both types of weights; free weights and machines, have value. The real question is which one is more valuable to you.
When you go into a gym you may notice that machines dominate a large portion of the real estate. This has a lot to do with the fact that machines are great for people new to lifting. As you likely know, people who are trying to get back in shape make up a lot of the gym crowd. More power to them and we hope they stick with it, but they normally don’t. Next month will bring a new group of people that are trying to get back in shape.
Because of all of this turnover the average experience level of gym members is novice. Machines offer an advantage to these novices. Most machines are pretty self-explanatory and new members can figure them out by looking at them and sitting on them. They basically force the new member to do the exercise the way the machine was designed. This helps them get a foothold in the world of lifting and also keeps them safe.
Another advantage offered by machines—and this one applies to all of us—is that they offer weight from positions that would other wise be difficult. Rather than having to invert your entire body and use dumbbells to do decline presses at an angle across your body, you can just use a cable machine.
The biggest benefit of free weights is that you have to control the movement. Actually you GET to control the movement. You can get a lot more variety into your routine by changing angles in a variety of exercises. The other aspect of controlling the movement, that helps you gain muscle mass is the use of stabilizing muscles. As you move a dumbbell through the motion of a particular exercise that targets one primary muscle, you are using several secondary muscles to keep that dumbbell on a proper plane.
A thorough workout routine will cut down the work you have to do on core muscle development. They will get a lot of attention as a by-product of the rest of your free weight routine. The fact that you are forced to control your entire body while lifting also helps your overall muscle mass gains.
Another big benefit that applies directly to gaining muscle mass is that machines all have a maximum weight. As you lift heavier and heavier to gain muscle mass you will eventually surpass these machines. Machines also have fixed increments. With free weights, if you know you can lift 2 more pounds or 3 more you can just add them onto your bar or dumbbell. These may seem like small benefits at the time but over time you will see more results the sooner you can increase the weight you are lifting.
Machines also offer real world strength. When asked which was more effective, free weights or machines, Mayo Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Edward Laskowski, M.D., and his colleagues responded “Free weights simulate real-life lifting situations and promote whole-body stabilization when used correctly. “
As we thought to begin with, there are definitely advantages to both lifting methods. The advantages that apply to lifters who are looking to gain serious muscle mass definitely come from free weights.
1. Author, Edward Laskowski, M.D. & Colleagues. (n.d.). Ask a Fitness Specialist. Retrieved April 1, 2008, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/weight-training/AN01023.