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Free Weights Vs. Machines: Which Is Better?

Phil Graham Personal Training and coaching

I’m sure you’ve all heard the best way to train is with free weights over machines.

The typical arguments for use of free weight training will usually go something like this:

“ They activate more muscle fibers including the stabilizers “

“ They are a better representation of raw strength “

“ They burn more calories “

While these comments may be inherently true, machine weights do serve a valid purpose in specific training programs.

First, it’s essential to consider context first…

Q. Starting Strength (Free Weights vs Machines)

No matter what your goal with training is, getting strong first is incredibly important. The stronger you are the quicker things happen from both a body composition and performance standpoint.

For anyone starting out, if you haven’t developed foundational strength and quality of movement in the 5 basic movement patterns (using free or body weight) its time to re write your training program.

The 5 basic movements include:

  • Squat
  • Hip Hinge
  • Weighted Carry
  • Push
  • Pull

Generally speaking, provided there are no underlying injuries or bio-mechanical disadvantages from birth these movements are best developed by repetitive practice using free weight.

Not only will you get stronger but you will also develop the much-needed motor skills (co ordination) needed to master quality range of movement and the mind to muscle connection you keep hearing about!

Phil Graham Goblet Squat

Perfect these movements, engrain them and everything else will fall into place for future strength and hypertrophy gains.

On the other hand, if machines are used as a starting point in strength training the quality of movement will be solely governed by the quality of the machine. Also, there is not the same degree of mental effort or coordination involved in comparison to that of using free weights. Meaning your ability to develop that much-needed mind to muscle activation is compromised.

As a result of relying on machine work, people can develop shitty movement patterns and ultimately lay strength on top of dysfunction.

This is not something you want if you treasure one of your most important assets – mobility!

Q. Working Around Injury (Free Weights vs Machines)

Injury can be a curse when it comes to training.

An injury can hinder your training in two ways. Firstly, the injured muscle group will be out of the question depending on recovery status. Secondly, other muscle groups that require the accessory support of the injured muscle may prove problematic to train.

Lets put this into context.

There tends to be greater involvement of the entire musculature with free weight training. For example, say you break your arm, this would make all pressing and pulling movements difficult.

However, your lower body would still be ok to train. Exercises like squats, lunges or anything involving free weight would be out of the question. This is one scenario where machines can come in handy and allow you to work around injuries.

Always remember  – Pain inhibits muscle activation.

knee-pain

If you lack adequate mobility and range of motion because of injury don’t be afraid to compensate with machine work until you fully recover.

Q. What are your training goals? (Free Weights vs Machines)

If you’re a Powerlifter, Olympic lifter, Crossfitter or Kettlebell enthusiast then yes free weights will be your primary go to as they are specific to your end goal. Machine work can serve as accessory work here and there as needed but in this case free weights rule.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in bodybuilding or body composition related goals both machines and free weights can serve a purpose.

Free weight training can come in very useful for building underlying strength, which can prove incredibly helpful when one crosses over into machine work.

Machine work can be useful from an aesthetic standpoint especially when it comes to targeting weak muscle groups and generating a lot of work output safely.

Phil Graham Leg Extension

Q. Quality of equipment? (Free Weights vs Machines)

This is something that is often overlooked.

Some of the free weight training equipment I’ve used over the years has been ehhhh sketchy, to say the least.

Bent barbells, loose dumbbells, shity squat racks you name it – I’ve used it!

I’ve also trained on some machines that would be better of salvaged as scrap.

Over the years, I’ve seen a growing problem of fabricators who have very little or no understanding of proper biomechanics manufacture machines that encourage problematic movement patterns that ultimately result in wear and tear if used progressively over time!

I know of one IFBB pro bodybuilder who swears blind his “double’ quad tear was part in parcel a result of training with on a poorly designed hack squat. Yes, you could argue about underlying issues, but for someone who clearly is very much in tune with his musculoskeletal system he most definitely sensed something was off!

If the quality of the equipment you’re using is off, don’t chance it, change it! You’re not going to benefit from it only increase your risk of injury!

Take Home Message (Free Weights vs Machines)

Both machines and free weights have their purpose. Always consider the context of their use. For anyone starting out with strength training, It is imperative you master the basic movement patterns using free weight exercises and then work from there depending on your goals!

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