If you’ve been an avid gym exerciser for at least couple of years, then you must be familiar with the ongoing debate between free weights and machines. It is one of the most heated and polarizing topics in the fitness with so many biased opinions. When I was growing up, the older guys I lifted with made me use free weights and told me never to use machines. They demeaned machines saying it was for the weak and lazy. So many case studies over the years concluded that free weights are advantageous over machines when it comes to maximal strength, bone density, fat loss and muscle mass.
So machines are useless and should be extinct right?
Well, not necessarily. It’s scientifically true that training with free weights (barbells, dumbbells, body weight, etc) have more benefits than machines. The proof is in the pudding : Increased range of motion, development of maximal strength, best potential for hypertrophy, stronger bones due to increased tension and building maximal power are some of the great benefits of using free weights. An overwhelming part of my workout programs and that of my clients are centered around free weights. I’m a firm believer in them.
However, machines also have their benefits and can be incorporated into workout programs. Certain people may also benefit a great deal from machines. It is important to identify the fitness goal at hand and the training level of the individual when utilizing machines. While the use of machines will never be as popular as that of free weights, they can still be used in some capacity.
Here are 3 ways machines can be used:
1. Sedentary & De-Conditioned Individuals: These are people so inactive that walking up a flight of stairs can be a daunting task. Sedentary and de-conditioned individuals have little to no muscular strength and endurance. Their muscles are so weak and tendons very wound up. For these reasons, these people are better off starting off with machines, where there is easier range of motion and controlled directional force. As the body adapts over time, free weights should be used.
2. Isolating Muscle Groups: When it comes to lean mass, free weights is the undisputed king. No question about it. However certain small muscle groups may benefit a great deal from the use of machines. Small muscles like the gluteus minimus and medius, anterior deltoid, biceps and calf muscles can be individually targeted through the use of machines for better definition. Keep in mind, these muscles should already be activated via compound movements before being isolated for better accentuation. Examples are the hip abduction (gluteus minimus and medius) and seated shoulder press (anterior deltoid) machines.
3. De-Loading: The term ‘de-load‘ refers to lowering the intensity and volume of training for a period of time. It basically means, taking some ‘load’ off your current workload. Though not set in stone, de-load phases typically occur following 3 to 4 weeks of moderate to intense training and can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days. During this phase, a free weight exerciser can use machines to lighten and lower his/her workload. It’s basically a way of giving the body a break while still training it at a decreased intensity.
Remember, I’m not advocating the notion that machines are better than free weights. Both are effective and impactful for muscular strength, lean muscle, fat loss, increased bone density and decreased LDL. However, machines do offer some advantages that could benefit certain individuals. In my humble estimation, they should be routinely performed providing the fitness goals at hand are being addressed properly.