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Should You Use Machines or Free Weights at the Gym?


Picture this: you're a brand new gymgoer with no workout experience under your belt. Before you step into the gym, you have an air of confidence about you, probably thinking something along the lines of, "Yeah, I've never been here before, but I saw that fitness page on Instagram, so lifting weights can't be that hard to figure out."

Once you're inside, however, you peer over to the corner of the building where a large man grunts loudly as he aggressively curls some heavy-looking dumbbells. For all you know, he could be lifting 30 or 300 pounds, and his technique is probably some secret passed down through many generations of weight lifting warriors, so there's no way you'd be able to do that.

Sheepishly, you look to the other side of the gym, where a woman you imagine is "toned-looking" sticks her legs in some strange contraption and you have no idea if she is working on her legs, back, abs, or all three. The look on her face suggests she's feeling the burn, though, so she must be on to something.

Not wanting to reveal your inexperience to the cute person working the desk, you decide a good jog on the treadmill will do you some good. After all, you haven't run much since high school. You can figure out which weights to use another day...

That's the story I make up when I notice someone looking undecided about free weights vs. weight machines at the gym. It's something of a longstanding debate as to which is better, but I believe it's more of a case-by-case thing dependent on the needs and goals of the individual doing the exercise.

That said, I'll be going over the pros and cons of free weights and machines so you can decide for yourself what would be best for you. Also keep an eye out for a freebie at the end :)

Machine Exercises

Let's talk about those machines first. Don't be fooled by their shiny appearance or the smiling models making them look like the easiest things in the world, they can provide a tough, challenging workout when used properly.

Speaking of models, by the way, don't be fooled by the super shredded abs they tend to have on the latest Core-Ripper T99x Delta Thing infomercial. They almost certainly did not get that appearance just by using whatever device they're selling, and, chances are, neither will you.

Anyway, exercise machines can be fantastic for beginners to get their major muscle groups strengthened and the learning curve is usually never steep. As the machine is designed so that its hinges/levers/whatevers move in one direction, all you have to do is sit down, pick a weight, and push/pull in that direction. The range of motion, hand/leg placement, and starting position is always set for you, making it easy to learn.

They can also be safer for people, as you'd never have to deal with a 50 pound hunk of iron over your head, supported by spindly, inexperienced arms waiting to drop it. Assuming some other person with no workout experience doesn't come over and lift a 50 pound weight over your head, of course.

At worst, if you drop whatever you're lifting, you'll just make a loud clanging sound as the weight stacks smack together and everyone in the gym stares at with a look in their eyes that says, "Outsider!"

Some machines also lend themselves well to isolating a specific muscle more efficiently than a similar exercise done with free weights. This allows for more adaptive stress to be placed on a target muscle, giving you a very effective workout. I use machines in cases like this when a client needs special attention on one muscle.

Unfortunately, the ease of use and preset motion patterns can also be a drawback of using machines. Since "average person size" dominates the design of nearly everything - sorry, tall basketball players - machines don't always fit with a given individual's natural movement and range of motion, and forcing yourself to move against your own design can lead to injury.

Further, with so much already set up for you on a machine, you miss out on engaging synergist and stabilizer muscles while doing an exercise, which I'll get into more later.

The look on this guy's face says it all: "Why are you touching me?"

Free Weights

Ah yes. The favored tool of many hotshot muscular gym folks.

The majority of weight training exercises done with my clients is typically with free weights, simply because you generally get more bang for your buck, which is great as I have limited time training them and want to maximize results.

Doing a seated shoulder press without a backrest, for example, involves not only your working shoulder muscles, but your core has to work to keep your torso upright and balanced between the two dumbbells.

The fact that so many more muscles are engaged and challenged both increases workout efficiency and helps me as a trainer with identifying and correcting imbalances in clients.

A dumbbell isn't restricted to certain movement patterns, so anyone can pick it up and move it in a way that is natural for their body type, and even create variations of common exercises. Just look up all the different ways of doing a bicep curl (there are a LOT). With all the freedom you get here, you can really create a unique and effective workout.

I would say the downside to using free weights is only in the fact that they can be intimidating for new lifters and dangerous if you're not using them properly (though that can go for any exercise).

Also, if you don't have a well-designed workout routine, it is easy to overwork one part of your body while neglecting another - the most famous example is guys working on their pecs a lot without exercising their back muscles, eventually creating a kind of hunched-over appearance.

If you're working with a more experienced friend or trainer, it's important that you're completely honest about your workouts if you want to reach your goals. That means not skipping out on reps and sets just because you feel like it, but also not forcing too much on yourself too early. Find what challenges you, and move from there.

What about Cables?

I love cable machines! To me, they're like a happy medium between the free range of motion dumbbells offer, but like other machines, you're not lifting the weight itself, making it an ideal choice for those with safety in mind. Plus, you can get pretty creative with them, so I often use these with clients in addition to free weights.

The only downside with cables I find is simply that some exercises are hard or impossible to do with cables, depending on the setup of the machine. In those cases, however, you can usually find an alternative exercise to work the same muscle groups.

Regardless of which method you choose in the gym, the ONE key point to understand is that overloading your muscles is what makes them stronger. At the end of the day, your arms won't know whether you used a dumbbell, machine, or sack of flour, it will only know the stress you put on it. Sure, some techniques are more effective than others, but the end goal is to push your muscles beyond what they are used to.

For more on building muscle, check out my other article, The Truth about Toning. And as for that freebie I mentioned earlier, I put together a machine-based full body workout adapted from a circuit I teach twice a week at AC4 Fitness.

It's fantastic if you're new to working out, and I wrote it in such a way that you should be able to do all the exercises at any major gym. If you'd like me to send it to you, just shoot me an email or comment with your email address below :)

Happy lifting, everyone!

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