One of the most heated debates in the world of fitness today is the battle
of free-weights (low-tech apparatus) versus machines (high-tech apparatus).
Each side has their arguments with both sides having some merit to their
This article will try to separate some of the fact from the fiction
of each of these types of training tools. At the end of this article it
will make more sense as to why one would choose a free-weight or a machine
and for what purpose.
Before we dive into the major differences between free weights and machines
let us first agree on what we are calling a free-weight or a machine.
A free-weight can be classified as any object or device that can be moved
freely in three-dimensional space. Some of the more common free-weights
found in a gym would be:
3. High/Low or adjustable pulley system
4. Lat pull-down and low-row device
5. Medicine Balls(all types including kettle bells)
6. Ankle weights
7. The human body the ultimate free-weight of all!
In all reality, any object that is free to move in three-dimensional space
that is not fixed to any specific set of axis (as in a smith machine) can be
considered a free weight. An exercise machine on the other hand, is not
allowed to move in three-dimensional space and is usually only capable of
moving in two dimensions.
Any exercise machine in a gym such as a pec-dec or
a smith machine is a perfect example of what we are calling high-tech
So which is best, free-weights or machines? I would assume that most of you
reading this article are frequent users of free-weights and cable systems.
However, I also know that many bodybuilders choose machine training for
isolating and really targeting a specific muscle or group of muscles. So to
answer the question on the superiority of free weights versus machines it is
first important to know what one's goals are.
Structural Vs. Functional Goals
In studying human physiology we learn that structure and function are
intimately related. In strength training jargon this means that if you want
to change your structure (i.e. build mass) you must change the function of
that structure (i.e. improve 8-12RM) which is ultimately a neuromuscular
So if ones wishes to gain mass (hypertrophy), one must change
the function on the nervous system's ability to use that muscle (i.e. get
stronger) so that the structure (soft-tissues) can adapt and grow.
The average reader on a web site called Bodybuilding.com is probably most
interested in structural goals like building mass and losing body fat than
say a sprinter, who is mainly concerned with improving a specific function
(running 100m dash in 10 seconds) and thus prioritizes functional goals over
This does not mean that sprinters omit structural phases
in their training. It simply states that the main goal for a sprinter is not
to get as big as a house but rather to improve a specific skill (run fast)
which requires that the function of the neuromuscular system improve along
with the structure.
Getting back to our discussion of free-weight versus machines, it helpful
to know the main benefits of each in relation to whether we have primarily
structural or functional goals. Free weights, with their extreme versatility
are the ultimate tool for both structural and functional goals.
For instance if a bodybuilder is bench pressing and wishes to put on mass, a choice of
reps in the 8-15 range would make a good choice. If one is also a football
player who desires to put on some mass the bench press again is an excellent
choice because it develops more real-life strength.
What is often called
functional strength due to the need to stabilize and control the barbell
in all three planes of motion, just like the athlete will need to do on the
However if the football player decides to use all high-tech
Hammer strength machines for his chest work he may build some impressive
pecs but will be lacking in the function department due to the lack of
three-dimensional stability required in those exercises. Thus, his structure would have improved but
without a corresponding increase in his function.
Now lets look at a scenario where a bodybuilder, who's chest development
has been stuck for some time. His workouts usually consist of free-weight
only with some standing cable fly's thrown in to finish off his chest
If this person were to add some machine work at the end of his
free-weight workout he may be able to add some more volume and thus trigger
some new growth. After his traditional free-weight workout, his shoulder
stabilizers may be so fatigued that his chest is unable to get more work
during his final sets.
However, by finishing off with some machine training
he may be able to exhaust and stimulate more pectoral muscle fibers because
the machine is taking some of the load off his rotator cuff. This is a
scientific application for the use of machines.
For the vast majority of exercises and goals, whether structural or
functional, free-weights usually offer the most variety as well as total
body stimulation because many muscles other than the prime movers (muscles
responsible for moving the load) are stimulated as stabilizers.
Machines on the other hand, with their ability to isolate better, can be useful for
structural or bodybuilding purposes when they are carefully planned in the
workout which is usually to place them after all free-weight exercises.
There is much more to the story here.
Hopefully, this article has shed a
little light on the differences between free-weights and machines and
specifically the scientific use of each in regards to your training goals.
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