For many people who go to the gym on a regular basis there is a belief that machine are more effective and, more importantly, safer, than free weights. Don’t get me wrong, machines are beneficial in certain aspects, but this idea is incorrect. And I’ll tell you why.
First off, I want to give credit where credit is due. Machines can be beneficial if used in the right manner. For one, they are great for isolating one or two muscle groups at a time. This can come in handy for those who workout specific muscle groups on specific days. Also, because of the angles used by the lever arms on most machines, they are able to alter the resistance throughout the range of motion. This makes the same weight heavier at the point in which we are strongest, and lighter at the points when we are weaker. So, as you can see, machines do have some benefits. But, to me, this is where they stop…
When it comes to safety and technique, machines are no different than dumbbells and barbells. If you don’t know how to use them, they can be dangerous. For example, if you’re seat it too high or too low, depending on the machine, you can put certain joints in serious jeopardy of injury. Hand and foot placement on certain machines is also just as important as it is on free weight exercises. If you don’t know the correct starting point, you can be putting yourself in a compromising position.
Now, beyond that, let’s get to some of the benefits that free weights (dumbbells and barbels) have over stationary training with machines…
First and foremost, free weight activity recruits more stabilizer muscles than the alternative. Compare the squat exercise to the leg press machine. With a barbell (or dumbbell) squat, you must recruit ALL of your core muscles to complete the exercise. This is what stabilizes your midsection throughout the movement. If you abdominal, hip, and glute muscles were not activated along with quad and hamstring muscles, you would not be able to complete the movement. With the leg press, you take out all of your core activation. You are in a seated position, so there is no need to stabilize anything. This can be said for just about any lower body exercise when comparing free weights to machines.
Second, and equally as important, is the fact that free weights allow you to train in multiple plains of motion – internal and external rotation, extension, flexion, etc – at the same time. Machines, however, don’t allow for this. By isolating muscle groups, they also limit the motion of the movement. Free weights, as the name would indicate, allow you to be much more efficient in your workouts by going through multiple plains, targeting multiple muscles at the same time. If you’re wanting more bang for your weight lifting buck, free weights are the way to go.
So, what’s the moral of this story I’ve just rambled on about? Machines are good. They are effective at isolating muscles, and particularly beneficial for those who are relatively new to exercise. But, free weights are better. They allow for more EFFICIENT exercise that can be done just as safely as machines. So, if you want to get the most out of your workouts, get off the machines and pick up a dumbbell.