Machines Vs. Free Weights

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.

How to design your own workout program

Stronger, leaner, body fat reduction and improved endurance are some of the plethora of reasons why we exercise and train. One of the most difficult challenges in exercise is the ability to continually push the body safely and effectively but also being able to yield upward progressions. Many trainees have told me of their struggles with boredom, inability to bench press or squat past a certain load and a lack of enthusiasm on training days.

All of this can be attributed to program design, arguably the most overlooked aspect of training. Very few people put in the effort in planning out their workout programs over the course of several weeks and months. The eagerness to get a good pump in the weigh room or to break tons of sweat on the treadmill has often lead to this. All of the sudden we stop seeing the results and over time, complacency creeps in, lack of focus, lethargy and we hit a plateau.

I was faced with these same problems when I first started training, both with my clients and myself. Here are my 5 most effective ways to design a training program:

  1. SET GOALS: Goal setting is like the foundation that is laid out for a house to be built upon. Knowing exactly what your specific short and long term fitness goals and objectives are will make it much easier for a program to be written and quicker for the goals to be met. Regardless of the goal at hand, programs should be planned for 2 to 4 weeks in advance with small progressions in intensity and exercises.
  2. INTEGRATE RESISTANCE TRAINING: It has been scientifically and theoretically proven that resistance training is the most effective modality of training. Fat loss, muscle gain, increased metabolism, improved self-esteem, reduction in high blood pressure and increased bone density are some of the many benefits. Resistance can be obtained via one’s body weight, barbells, dumbbells, medicine ball, bosu ball and resistance bands.
  3. WARM-UP: This is obviously a no-brainer but warming up is more than just using your favorite cardio machine. Although core temperature of the body will elevate after a 5-minute brisk walk on the treadmill, dynamic and mobility drills offer more bang-for-your-buck perks. Foam rolling, self myofascial release work and certain dynamic drills help loosen up the muscle tissue and promote blood flow quicker and better prepares the body for the workout ahead.
  4. EMPHASIZE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS: These are exercises that utilize more than one joint and also engage more than one muscle group. The squat, push-ups, deadlift and overhead press are some of the popular compound movements that can work virtually the whole body which translates into more calories burned. Perform compound movements at the start of your workouts before transitioning to single-joint movements like biceps curl, tricpes extension and lateral raises.
  5. DE-LOAD: The body is like a car in the sense that it can’t run continuously without frequent refueling and serviced maintenance. By frequently scheduling active rest and recovery periods (at least once a month), the body is able to recharge its batteries and increase performance. Far too many people exercise for several months in a row without de-loading and end up with nagging aches and pains, lack of motivation on training days and a decrease in energy and strength. A de-load period can be anywhere from 4 to 7 days with complete rest (no training) or achieved performing lower intensity activities like brisk walking and/or cycling, resistance training at very low intensities or self myofascial release and soft tissue work.

These steps are based on my experience as a seasoned trainee and trainer over the course of 12 years and through extensive research study. Listen to your body, leave your pride and ego at the gym door and remember to always use good form.