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Free Weights vs. Machines: Is One Better Than the Other?

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The Basics

Resistance training causes muscles or muscle groups to work against a force (eg, gravity or exercise equipment) that provides a resistance strong enough to increase strength. Some of the more familiar equipment used for resistance training are free weights, machines, and cable systems.

There has been a lot of debate over which type of resistance training is best. Each has their own pros and cons. The best plan may be to explore your options and decide which is most suitable for you. A combination of the different types of resistance training may offer the most effective workout.

Health Benefits of Resistance Training

There are numerous health benefits associated with resistance training, like increased muscle strength, power, and endurance; stronger connective tissue; increased bone density; reduced body fat; increased rate at which calories are burned; reduced risk of injuries; and improved balance and coordination.

Resistance training has been shown to be an essential component for physical performance enhancement. At Pennsylvania State University, a study was conducted to determine the effects of resistance training. Ninety-three healthy women were randomly assigned to six training groups, which varied by training protocol, and were followed for six months. The results showed continued improvements in physical performance.

Build a Program

Before embarking on a program, there are many factors to consider—the most important being your personal goals. If you are a beginner, start with a simple program. As you gain confidence and strength, you can progress by varying your exercises, the number of repetitions and sets, and the length of time you rest between sets.

Choose the equipment that is right for you:

  • Machines—Machines are designed to apply resistance in a restricted manner. They place your body in a fixed position, providing stability and balance, and allowing only the targeted muscle(s) to be worked. Exercises on machines can be learned easily and don’t require a lot of coordination. In addition, there is minimal opportunity for error and low risk of injury. Machines are often favored for people with injuries because they control range, motion, and speed. Machines have disadvantages, as well. For example, if you are shorter or taller than average, you may have trouble using a piece of equipment properly.
  • Free weights—Proper form is more challenging with free weights than with machines, because you must incorporate balance and stability in order to isolate the proper muscles. They also require control and coordination. Free weights accommodate various body types and sizes and provide unlimited exercise options. However, there is more room for error and increased risk of injury. But free weights can be much more versatile and affordable than machines, which is important if you plan to work out at home.
  • Cable systems—These are a hybrid of free weights and machines. Some pulley systems are designed so that multiple exercises can be performed on a single piece of equipment, allowing a full-body workout.

There are advantages to both free weights and machines, but often one is more appropriate than the other to achieve specific outcomes. Combining the two forms allows you to enjoy the advantages of both. For example, certain muscle groups are difficult to isolate with free weights. In this case, machines are a better option, even for experienced lifters. Machines also allow you to lift heavier weights. However, they impose restrictions that may not be satisfactory for every user. Free weights enable the body to move more naturally and allow you to make slight variations in form. In addition, they are universal—every gym will have familiar free weight equipment.

Supervision Enhances Performance

The debate continues about which form of resistance training is better, but there is little disagreement that exercises performed under the supervision of an instructor will produce better results. In a study by the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, 20 moderately trained men, aged 18-35 years, were randomly assigned to either a supervised or unsupervised group. At the beginning of the study and after 12 weeks of performing identical exercises, the groups were tested for a variety of strength and endurance measures, as well as body composition. The results of the directly supervised group were significantly better compared with the unsupervised group.

Using Your Body

Free weights and machines are not the only resistance training options. Body weight can provide enough resistance for a workout—push-ups and dips are just two examples—and resistance bands are easy to transport. Fitness instructors can suggest creative exercises and tips on proper form for persons who are traveling or without access to a gym.

(Especially) Not Just for Jocks

The media and popular culture identifies weight training with youth, flat abs, and big biceps. In fact, weight training can be most beneficial for many people who will never find themselves on the front cover of fitness magazines. Close supervision (often with careful physician oversight) is necessary for safety and effectiveness. The results often include better strength, endurance, and quality of life.

  • American College of Sports Medicine

    http://www.acsm.org/

  • National Strength and Conditioning Association

    http://www.nsca-lift.org/

  • Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology

    www.csep.ca/

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

    Healthy Living Unit

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/pau-uap/fitness/

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  • Selecting and effectively using free weights. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-free-weights.pdf. Accessed July 13, 2012.

  • Selecting and effectively using home weight machines. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-home-weight-machines.pdf. Accessed July 13, 2012.

  • When strength training, is it better to use machines or free weights. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: http://www.acefitness.org/blog/68/when-strength-training-is-it-better-to-use/. Updated October 2009. Accessed July 13, 2012.