The Age Old Debate.....Free Weights vs Machines

As time passes the age old argument still exists, the use of free weights vs machines for resistance training, and which is best. 
The truth? they both have a place within your training program and it is mostly dependent on the goals at which you set, as to how you should use them.

During this blog we will discuss some of the pros/cons for each discipline, secondly we will identify where you should correctly fit them into your training program.
Free Weights, Dumbbells and Barbells.
First of all I think we can start by saying there really is no better feeling, you load a bar, with a weight you haven’t previously lifted, you attempt the lift and complete it! But what are the pros and cons for training with free weights.

First of all training using free weights is a better test of strength, machines can and will always be a good accessory to go alongside strength training but they should never be used solely when strength is the goal. Machines should also never be used as an alternative for a compound movement. There is only one winner here.. free weights.

When using Dumbbells & Barbells you will typically use a larger proportion of muscles to complete a movement. Exercises such as the squat, deadlift & bench press, use a larger amount of muscles during each lift, more than what a machine alternative would use. These movements as we eluded to above are known as compound movements.
Adding to the above, this also means our antagonist, stabilising muscles and joints need to work much harder than they would when using a machine. This meaning not only are you strengthening the target muscle, but also the joints/ligaments and surrounding areas when using free weights.
Because activity is also higher (more muscles are being used) when using a barbell/dumbbell, this means we will also typically burn more calories! This further adding to the value of using free weights.

Some of the cons...
When using free weights there is a possibility of injury, a lack of proper form could typically cause this. Therefore in the early stages a lot of emphasis needs to be placed on learning the movements individually. This can take time and failure to do this could result in a higher chance of injury, something that will very rarely happen when using a machine. 
Training alone? this can be bad! There is a chance you may not be able to fulfil you’re potential without a competent ‘spotter’. A spotter typically a training partner can help to keep you motivated, spur you on, keep you safe and also give you extra confidence when performing bigger movements. Without one you may struggle to push yourself and may not have the confidence to attempt a bigger lift. This is typically not a problem with a machine.

So where do we fit free weights into our routines? Typically they will be used throughout all of our routines, if you are training for strength, power or hypertrophy you will use free weights in most sessions. In fact no matter what your goal is, implementing free weights into your routine will benefit you. 
Ok so let’s talk about machines, why do we like them so much?

So firstly we should probably mention the ease of use. Even for the most novice of beginners, on the most part you can simply read the guidelines for the machine, set yourself up and start lifting. A huge benefit for any beginner starting out with resistance training for the first time. 
Machines are also great at targeting specific muscles. Want wider delts, or to specifically target the upper chest? There is literally a machine for every body part. You can load them to suit your needs, you can’t take the weight away from the correct path of movement (positive) & you can control the weight in such a way to keep the target muscle under tension the whole time. A great benefit for using a machine in relation to a free weight.
When using machines unlike using free weights there is also the majority of the time no need for the use of a spotter even when lifting heavy. The added support, the knowing the weight can not fall from path & the sturdiness of most machines give you the confidence to push yourself without the need of a friend standing by. 
Using machines also lesson the risk of injury. This due to the path at which we lift the weight already being determined for us. This will generally put less strain on the joints, tendons & ligaments, which is great for those low on confidence and also beginners plus the older generation. 

As with anything there are some drawbacks..
Weighted machines are easier to use, and do have great benefits, but if you have serious ambitions of building a great physique or becoming stronger, you cannot simply rely on them alone. In this case they should be used as an accessory to using free weights and compound movements. Which are known to push the body a lot harder, thus giving us a much better baseline in my opinion to improve.
Depending on which brand of machine you use or come across, they are sometimes let down down by a poor or not optimal range of motion. This can hamper you fully stimulating a muscle and may not give you the maximum benefit that a free weight alternative may. This can obviously vary between the different machines and also the way our own individual body shape fits to a machine. 

So when should we use machines? Typically to supplement our other training in my opinion. As we have said previously, when training for strength, power & hypertrophy you should prioritise free weights and use machines in a supplementary role. Starting your journey with weighted machines can be great to help you into you’re new routine before moving onto free weights. 

So to summarise, In my opinion we should optimise the use of both, there is simply no substitute for free weights. They challenge us, force us to work hard and you can learn a lot from yourself when approaching certain lifts. That being said machines are great to supplement your training, you can target specific muscles, and from specific angles in order to really build a solid/well rounded physique. 

Don’t be scared of using free weights, and taking the time to learn the movements. The benefits are huge and your physique will thank you for it. Machines complement all weightlifting programmes and they are not just for beginners. The optimal approach is to find the right mix, implement them both dependant on your goals. Do that, be consistent and you will not go far wrong. 

David Clayton Charlesworth

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