There’s often a debate around which type of weight training is best for you, is it resistance machines, or freeweights? Now I can’t say I’m exclusively a freeweights guy as occasionally I’ll have a chest pump on the pec deck, but I still firmly think that freeweights are always a better option. Read on to find out why.
Why you are attracted to machines
There’s a range of reasons why you might think resistance machines are a better way to go when starting your fitness journey, with the main one being that most commercial gyms are full of them. The average split for a commercial gym floor is 30% cardio, 50% machines, and 20% freeweights, so when you walk in as a newbie you would assume this is what you should be spending your time on. This however is incorrect. There’s a lot of useless machines out there and you need to learn why.
The second reason why you are attracted to machines is that’s what everyone else is using, so you follow suit. If, like me, you started your fitness journey following research off Youtube, most of the people you are watching are big fitness celebrities. These fitness celebrities exercise a minimum 6x per week and if they are into aesthetic training (training for looks), probably use body-part splits. If you’re a beginner, you don’t need to use body-part splits. Why would you follow the same workout routine as a top fitness model who has trained for decades, it just doesn’t make sense.
I think the main reason why people are drawn to machines is the fact that they are easy. Usually gym floors are arranged so that each muscle the machines are focused on are grouped together so if you wanted to work your back you just walk over to the back section, pick 6 machines, sit on each one, pull the handles and hey, good workout. It also means you can text your friends and check the ‘gram during your workout, great success.
That being said if anyone is an intermediate-advanced trainer and is only training for aesthetics, go ahead and stick to your machines. You should however incorporate at least a couple of compound freeweight exercises into your workouts.
Why you should go for freeweights
Coming from a sports background, the main focus in my training has been on strength and performance. That being said, I still dabble with a few machines, but only at the end of my workout. An old coach of mine told me “Always finish your real workout, and if you have any energy at the end, then do some machines”, and to this day I follow this advice. For example; only once you’ve finished your deadlifts, chin ups, rows, upper back, curls, then maybe jump on a few machines.
The truth is, resistance machines were built to recreate movements that are performed with freeweights… every single one. For every machine that you use, you could perform the same movement with freeweights, or even just your bodyweight. Freeweights offer so much more than simply sitting on a chair and pushing.
The best benefit is core engagement. When using freeweights, you need to use your core to stabilise your body, and it doesn’t matter which exercise you are doing, you immediately start to use your core, even just picking the weight up off the floor will do you some good. If you are sitting with bad posture and performing an exercise with bad posture, this will (obviously) leave you with bad posture. I see sooo many people sitting terribly on a machine and pushing/pulling as hard as they can, thinking that they are doing their body good but in reality, it is counter-productive. Take a shoulder press for example, is it better to plonk your body onto a chair and mindlessly push a handle upwards, or is it better to lift a weight off the floor, brace your body, press it overhead, balance and stabilize the weight, and repeat, it doesn’t take a genius to work it out.
Which brings me to my second benefit of freeweights; functionality and stability. Resistance machines use single planes of movement (apart from cables, which are ok to use in my eyes). Take a chest press machine, there is no direction the handles can go in apart from straight forward and backward. On the other hand, with a dumbbell chest press, you need to control the weight from the floor to your lap, control it as you lie back to get into position, then during the exercise you need to control pushing forward and backwards, whilst not letting the weight move up and down, side to side, rotating etc, meaning that you are using a hell of a lot more muscles during the exercise, and more muscles worked is good news! You’ll never feel confident lifting something outside the gym unless you perform freeweight exercises.
Freeweights make you use muscles in conjunction with each other. The body wasn’t meant to use single muscles individually, it was created to work together to move itself and external objects. If you perform a squat you are using the lower body muscles together and at the same time. If you do quad extensions, hamstring curls, calf raises, and glute kickbacks you are working the same muscles but not in unison, and this is not what the body was made for. You might be able to stack the quad extension but when it comes down to it you don’t have any real, useful strength in your legs.
One of the most appealing reasons to use freeweights in my opinion is that you burn more calories using them! If you sit on a horizontal row machine for 5 minutes and perform 3 sets of 15 reps, is it much easier than picking up a barbell, bracing your body, leaning forward, performing 15 reps, lowering the barbell, and standing between sets. I’ve done machine workouts and haven’t broken a sweat whereas I’m always dripping if I start on a compound freeweight exercise. So if burning calories is your goal, use freeweights!
That being said there’s always exceptions to the rule. You need to be shown how to safely use freeweights. Most gyms should have a gym instructor whose job it is to help you out for free (I think it’s a legal requirement). Do not attempt to use freeweights until someone qualified has shown you how. If your gym does not have a free instructor and you cannot afford a trainer, stick to the machines to start with as it is a lot safer, but try to get another member to show you the ropes if you want to maximise your efficiency. If you are recovering from an injury or are handicapped, you may want to stick to machines, and the same goes for the elderly, all for safety reasons. I do feel that freeweight or bodyweight exercises would help both these demographics strengthen their bodies, but again to play it safe, stick to machines to begin with.
So if you’ve fallen for the machine trap thinking that you’re getting the most out of your workouts, I’d suggest you swap to freeweight exercises. It’s an easy mistake to make but an easy mistake to rectify. Get a couple of sessions with a trainer just to go through technique, split the cost with a friend if you need to, and then you’re good to go. If you learn enough you wont even need that gym membership, just a couple of dumbbells at home and you’re sorted!