Some arguments are destined to rage on until the end of time. Which religion is right? Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Should you buy American or foreign cars?
And to those of us in the fitness world, the eternal debate is, what's better for building muscles, free weights or machines? And wouldn't you know it, Randy and I were about to have the same heated discussion that countless others before us had regarding these two very different training tools.
"No more machines!" Randy announced as we were putting our gym bags away before training chest. "I just read in ---- -----'s (a pro bodybuilder I won't name here for reasons that will become clear in a minute) column about how he thinks only free weights can make you grow. Machines and cables are for sissies!" I tried to hold in my smug chuckle.
"Don't you know I write that column for ---- ----?"
"You do?" Randy looked confused.
"Yes, just like I will never have his 21-inch arms, he will never have my God-given ability to string words together. Besides, to most people, sitting down and writing is about as much fun as a root canal."
"But he did really say that, right?"
"Yes he did, and he believes it too. He avoids machines like the plague in his workouts, and ---- has built a hell of a thickly-muscled physique with free weights."
"So he's right then, isn't he?" Randy really thought I was going to go along with him that easily. Little does he know the fur on my back bristles (up until about age 29 I didn't even have any hair on my back - aging sure is fun) whenever someone tries to claim that any one thing is the only path to results, and everything else is a waste of time. That's like trying to say that only Jennifer Lopez is the only truly beautiful woman on earth. Wait, that was a bad example. She is.
"The thing about that pro is that he has incredibly gifted genetics. I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't be as impressive had he used a bit more machines in his training over the years."
"You're not going to try to tell me machines are better than free weights now, are you?" Randy said, challenging me.
"No, because that wouldn't be true either. Free weights are the toughest training tool, and the core basic movements like bench presses, squats, deadlifts, rows, overhead presses, and dips have packed more muscle on more bodies combined than any machine ever could."
Randy shook his head and threw up his hands, as it seemed as if I had defeated myself in this debate with that admission.
"However," I continued, "there are some machines that free weights can't duplicate the motion of, or at least not very well. A couple good examples are leg extensions, leg curls and pressing machines like the leg press and hack squat. Squats and Romanian deadlifts are the best overall mass builders for the thighs and hamstrings, but for complete development you also need to use those machines. Even Ronnie Coleman, who is a big proponent of free weights, uses the full spectrum of free weights and machines for his leg training. Of course, he leg presses 2,500 pounds on top of 800-pound squats. And how big are his legs?"
"About the size of my whole body," replied Randy glumly. This wasn't exactly accurate. Combined, Ronnie's legs were probably no more than 170 pounds, even at his off-season weight of 320. So Randy still had the upper hand - barely.
"The problem is that for years, machine manufacturers, in particular Arthur Jones of Nautilus, tried to convince the world that free weights were obsolete now that we had these wonderful machines to use. The Nautilus machines were very good, and ahead of their time in many ways, but when bodybuilders tried switching to training only on machines, they quickly learned that they could not even maintain the same levels of size and strength as before, much less improve. Even the famous bodybuilders who Jones swayed over to machine-only training, such as Mike Mentzer, Casey Viator, and Boyer Coe, eventually went back to incorporating more free weights and less machines in their training. Thus, bodybuilders became disenchanted with machines in general and dismissed them as nothing more than marketing hype. And that was unfortunate."
"But why?" Randy demanded. If all they are good for is a couple leg exercises, what's the big deal?"
"That's not all machines are good for. For example, today we are hitting chest. We'll start with a dumbbell press, flat or incline, and do four good work sets of 5-10 reps. But if I try to do the other type of dumbbell press after that, what happens?"
| Free Weights or Machines: Which Is Better?
Machines or free weights? This isn't the first time this question has been brought up and probably not the last either. Read more to hear both sides of the argument!
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"You turn into a pumpkin?" Randy offered.
"No, wiseass, I have to use much lighter weights. For the first dumbbell press I can use as much as 140 or 150 pounds, but then if I try a second one, the weights are down to around a hundred pounds."
"Big deal," Randy shrugged. "So your strength goes down after your first exercise."
"No, that's not what's happening," I corrected him. "It's my ability to balance the weights that goes to hell in a hand basket. I still have plenty of strength left in me. If I go to a Hammer Strength machine next I can load up a few plates each side and blast away. Not everyone is like me, you don't seem to be, but there are a lot of bodybuilders who have to be fresh in the workout to be able to balance heavy free weights. For us, machines are a perfect way to continue training heavy for a couple more exercises."
"Okay," Randy conceded, "that sounds right. But since I don't lose my ability to balance, why do I need machines?"
I reached around Randy and tapped him on the lower back. "Remember this?" I said in my most evil voice - which sounds a little like Darth Vader to me. Others have commented that it sounds like I am trying to imitate Dan Rather.
The look on Randy's face as it turned the color of ash let me know that the memories of his back injury from last year had all just flooded back in Technicolor. He seemed to even be re-living the pain as he winced.
"You couldn't squat for a while, so you did heavy leg presses. And your legs didn't shrink, they grew. You couldn't do bent-over barbell rows while your back healed up, so you used the supported T-bar row and a couple Hammer Strength back machines. Your back got more muscular. If you hadn't had access to any machines, what would your training have been like during that time, Junior?"
"About as intense as a turtle on Valium," he said, echoing one of my pet phrases.
"You got that right. God forbid you hurt your back again, though I find it hard to believe you never will. When that day comes, you may need to start using more machines again for a while or else your training options will be quite limited."
Randy looked satisfied with my explanations. "Machines aren't so bad, I guess."
"No, they are not. I would never tell anyone trying to put muscle on to abandon the free weight basics, because that would be a huge mistake. But to categorically deny yourself the advantages and training variety machines offer just because some genetic freak told you to would be just as bad." I let that sink in. "Now let's argue about more important matters. Who's hotter - Britney or Jessica?"
That one went on for the rest of the workout, and we never did agree. But if we all liked the same things, what fun would that be? And for the record, it's Jessica Simpson by a long shot.