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.

The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.