23. 01. 2012

Machine Versus Free Weights 

Introduction
A common question among recreational weight trainers is whether to use machine or
free-weight exercises. The term “machines” usually refers to resistance training devices that
have cables, pin loaded weight stacks or fixed lever arms. Free-weights encompass dumbbells
and plates that are typically loaded on to the end of a barbell. Free-weight exercises are
performed usually on utility benches or squat racks. The most obvious difference between
the two is that free weight lifting better simulates real-life movement patterns. For example,
lifting a suitcase or bag of groceries is basically the same as lifting a dumbbell or barbell from
the floor of a weight room. This has a desirable effect in that free weights mimic what is
called “free-form.” Meaning, lifting a free weight requires the same type of forces and muscle
activity that is common to everyday activities and athletic endeavors as well. Machine
exercises are less like real life activities in that they supply resistance in a more controlled
and coordinated fashion. However, the benefit is that technique becomes less of concern
because most the motions are “guided” for the lifter. The lifter simply pushes or pulls the
weight and the machine determines the direction the weight will go. Machines also offer the
benefit in terms of user friendliness. They typically have pin-loaded weight stacks,
comfortable seats and are easy exercises to perform with little or no professional instruction.
Let’s examine a couple of issues and challenges facing both free weight and machine
exercises.


Muscle Hypertrophy
The term “muscle hypertrophy” refers to the process by which your muscles grow
and get stronger and is commonly one of the most desired effects of lifting weights. In
essence, muscles grow in response to the degree of loading placed upon them. So, in reality,
it doesn’t really matter how the loading is placed on the muscle just as long as it is sufficient
to stimulate the muscle to be active. If muscle hypertrophy is your only concern it probably
doesn’t make a big difference if you use machines or free weights to achieve this goal7. The
important factor is to provide sufficient overload to the muscle by lifting heavy weights.
Bodybuilders, for example, typically use a wide variety of machine and free weight exercises
to get bigger muscles. They use many different exercises to make sure every muscle in their
body is being stimulated to grow. However, there is still one drawback to using a machine
exercise as opposed to a free weight exercise to stimulate muscle growth. As mentioned
earlier, free weights involve free-form which requires you to use more muscles for a given
exercise. For example squatting with a barbell requires you to balance the weight on your
back, to balance yourself (so you don’t fall over) and thus requires a lot more muscle
activation than a machine exercises5. Improvement in bone mineral density has also been
shown to be greater with free weight training6. These studies indicate that there might be
some additional benefits in using free weight exercises over machines.

Nervous System
Most people don’t realize that your strength level is not just determined by how big
you muscles are, but also by your nervous system. Your nerves adapt to resistance training
just like your muscles do. Their structure and function change to allow you to lift more
weight8. Due to free-form involved with training with free weights it is likely that the
stimulus to the nervous system is greater than with machines6. There are some studies that
indicate that strength gain due to free weight training is more beneficial to the performance
of daily tasks or athletic activities as well2,3,4. However, there is a balance between how
much free-form you want to have. For example, performing a free weight squat allows for
increased muscle activation and force production, but, if you squat while standing on a
wobble board or balance disk your force production and muscle activity actually goes down1.
Free weights appear to be a nice compromise between creating free-form, yet still allowing
for maximal muscle activity and force production which is absolutely necessary for increasing
muscle strength by properly stimulating the nervous system.

Practical Concerns
Beyond whether free weights versus machines are better for increasing your muscle
strength, there are also some other practical concerns as well. For example, free weights
tend to be less costly and take up a lot less space than machines do. In addition, machines
have limitations in terms of how they fit each person. If you are very tall or very short you
may not fit very well into a machine that is designed for someone of a more average body
size. Many new machine exercise devices can cost thousands of dollars in comparison to the
relatively meager expense of a barbell and some weight plates. However, as mentioned
earlier machines can be easier to use and usually require a lot less professional assistance to
get started. You don’t have to worry about loading and unloading weight plates or moving
bars and dumbbells. This is probably the most significant reason for machine exercise
devices. They tend to be easier to use and don’t often times require a spotter or assistant to
help perform the exercise. It is important to remember, however, that injury and improper
form can occur with the use of either free weight or machine exercises. So it is always
important to receive proper instruction from strength and conditioning specialist whenever
starting a weight training program. One of the final concerns in using free weights or
machines is the cost and effort in maintaining the equipment. Free weights tend to require a
lot less maintenance. Machines often have many moving parts, including cables, straps,
pulleys, etc. If machines are not cared for properly it can potentially result in injury to the
user. Frayed cables or broken pulleys are a recipe for disaster in the weight room.

Conclusion
One may conclude, therefore, that the greatest benefit of machine exercises is their
ease-of-use, but remember that for increasing muscle strength for general fitness and quality
of life, free weights most likely have the advantage. If you have access to both there is no
reason that a combination of using both free weights and machines cannot be implemented.
Some exercises might be more easily performed on a machine versus a free weight device, so
there is no reason why a machine exercise cannot be used in certain situations. One of the
most important parts of resistance training is to actually do it consistently and make sure
that you are using progressive overload. Don’t just go to the gym and put on a light weight
and breeze through your workout. Challenge yourself by lifting heavier and heavier weights
each time. This is the only way to increase muscle strength and have it contribute to your
quality of life or athletic performance.

 


References
1. Behm, D.G., Anderson, K., Curnew, R.S. (2002) Muscle force and activation under
stable and unstable conditions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(3),
416-422.
2. Brill, P.A., Matthews, M., Mason, J., Davis, D., Mustafa, T., Macera, C. (1998)
Improving functional performance through a group-based free weight strength training
program in residents of two assisted living communities. Physical and Occupational
Therapy in Geriatrics, 15(3), 57-69.
3. Jensen, C.R. (1963) Effects of five training combinations of swimming and weight
training on the swimming of the front crawl. Research Quarterly, 34, 471-477.
4. Lachowetz, T., Evon, J., Pastiglione J. (1998) The effect of an upper body strength
program on intercollegiate baseball throwing velocity. Strength and Conditioning
Research, 12(2), 116-119.
5. McCaw, S.T., Friday, J.J. (1994) A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight
and machine bench press. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 8(4), 259-264.
6. Maddalozzo, G.F., Snow, C.M. (2000) Effects of two resistance training protocols on
insulin-like growth factors, muscle strength, and bone mass in older adults. Calcified
Tissue International, 66(6), 399-404.
7. Pipes, T.V. (1978) Variable resistance versus constant resistance strength training in
adult males. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 39, 27-35.
8. Sale, D.G. (1988) Neural adaptation to resistance exercise. Medicine and Science in
Sports and Exercise, 20(Supplement 5), 135-145.

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