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Free Weights vs. Machines

As a personal trainer, I love teaching new clients how to use the incredible array of equipment in a gym. One of the biggest problems is people that become overwhelmed by the choices.

Should I start my workout with free weights? On machines? With cables? Which one will give me the best results?

Some people don't want to use free weights because they seem scary or intimidating. Others won't get on a machine because they don't think it's "macho" enough. If I don't teach you anything else in this article, I want you to learn one thing: Don't let fear keep you away from free weights or false pride keep you off machines.

Let's start by defining what the two main types of equipment are.

Free Weights are "free" in the sense that the weights aren't attached to anything. Free weights include barbells and dumbbells.

Machines are equipment where the weights or resistance are restricted, such as a Universal Gym, Nautilus, Soloflex or Bowflex.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The secret to a good workout is maximizing the use of all the equipment available for your body and personal goals.

Machine Advantages:

Safety. Machines are designed to protect you should your muscles fail. If you drop the weight, it returns to the stack and doesn't fall on your head or other vulnerable body part. But don't be lulled into a false sense of safety. You must still perform the exercises with proper form to avoid injury.

Form. Proper form is critical to avoid injuries. With machines, form is much easier to maintain, and machines allow you to concentrate more on the movement.

Isolation of muscle groups. You can work on specific body parts without engaging other supporting areas. Machines for specific muscles are sometimes the only option for clients with neck, back or leg problems.

Consistency. Machines allow for incredible consistency in workouts. It is easier to repeat the exercises and work through a circuit of machines.

Time. Most people can move through a machine workout much faster than one with free weights. With free weights, you must change dumbbells, plates and collars as you increase weight. On most machines, it's a simple matter of moving a pin.

Free Weight Advantages:

Stabilizer muscles. Free Weights do not isolate your muscles like machines, so your stabilizing muscles get more of a workout.

Flexibility. People of any size can use free weights. If you are very small or very tall, you may not fit properly into a machine.

Range of motion. Free weights give you a greater range of motion. You can change the angles to increase resistance on any area or particular group of muscles.

Which one should you use?

There have been very few detailed studies comparing the two side by side, but in the studies that have been conducted, neither has shown any overall superiority. I recommend most of my clients use both.

Machines are great when you first begin working out. They help you learn how your body responds and can protect against injury. Machines reinforce proper form and help you break through workout plateaus.

Add free weights to your routine as you increase your strength and abilities. Free weights help you work all those smaller stabilizing muscles and are great at simulating real-world activities with the incredible variety of ways they can be used.

No matter what equipment you are using, they are tools to get you in better shape. Work with your personal trainer or physical therapist to learn which tools will give the best results for YOUR body.

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Updated 6/1/2012
Updated 9/1/2015