Free Weights Vs. Machines

by Neil Anderson

There is an ongoing debate about which is a better for training.  Is it free-weights or machines?  It only takes one look at a GPP facility to know where we stand on this issue.  At our place you will find zero machines.  For us, there is no debate. 

The debate is silly.  It involves concepts that are not related to your health and fitness.  Those who embrace machines as a primary means of gaining health and fitness have either a poor understanding of the concept of health and fitness or they have no understanding of their meanings at all.  Harsh?  We think not. 

The human body is an amazingly dynamic organism.  Our Creator made it so it is capable of performing movement in every plane of motion.  And so it does.  Almost every movement you make and every action you take is naturally performed in multiple and complex planes of motion.  This applies to even the simplest of tasks.  The simple act of reaching your hand out to grasp your water bottle and take a swig involves the use of multiple joints and complex movement patterns.  To completely diagram and describe this simple act in scientific terms would take pages and pages of text.  With this in mind it is important to note that along with making our bodies capable of moving in every plan of motion, indeed our Creator made it so that the only way possible for you to be fully functional and optimally healthy REQUIRES frequent movement in every plane of motion.  This is where machines primarily go wrong. 

Most machines are only capable of movement in a single plane of motion.  You should know, there are precious few practical tasks performed by your body that occur in a single plane of motion.  These would be limited to single finger waving and BLINKING!  That is about it.  If there are others they will have similar health-promoting benefits.

Theoretically, training on machines would have several advantages over free-weight training.  Let’s outline these so-called advantages claimed by machines and discuss them in detail. 

Advantage 1 - Simplicity of Use
Due to some brilliant engineering, exercise machines are quick and easy to set up and begin to use.  This is usually accomplished with little more than pulling and resetting of a pin or two.  So what? Simplicity of use does not translate into effectiveness of use.  Science has shown free-weight movements activate many more muscle groups when performing similar movements.  In fact, total muscle activation was 45% higher in the free-weight movements than on similar machine exercises. 

Advantage 2 – Safety
Certain professionals recommend using weight machines instead of free-weights because they are convinced you couldn’t possibly muster the brain power complete heavy or complex movements without causing injury to yourself.  There is no doubt that if you were to take away the possibility of dropping a bar or large stack of weights on yourself (as when using a machine weights), incidence of injury will be less.  However, this is not the professional’s primary concern.  Their lack of faith in you is more a reflection of their professional incompetency.  You should not let their technical incompetence have bearing on your health.    

Advantage 3 – Less Liability
Well sure, this would be a concern for a health club, but what has this got to do with YOU or YOUR health?  One of our primary arguments against the typical “globo-gym” type of facility is that many of their programs and facilities are set up to benefit mainly them.  The health of the actual user of these programs and facilities are a distant second in terms of concern.

Advantage 4 – Injury prevention
Exercise machines are not without their drawbacks in terms of injury prevention.  Limiting yourself to a single plane of motion (as with a Smith machine) is unnatural and potentially hazardous to your body.  This very popular type of exercise machine (and others) mandates that you conform your movement patterns to its engineering.  It does not take into account the natural shape of your body or the natural forces your body applies along the movement path.  This puts excess strain on body parts that would otherwise be protected by natural movement patterns.  Excess strain becomes injury, sooner or later.

Advantage 5 – You Get a Better Workout
Not true!  Not even close.  Agility, coordination, balance and accuracy are functions of the body.  Each has specific health benefits.  None of these are gained by the proper usage of machines. To get the most health benefit from your workout you must include as many muscle groups as possible.  Free-weights involve the use of multiple muscle groups.  Additionally, free-weights involve the use of stabilizer muscles (of the core, etc.) which must contract to keep your body in alignment during a free-weight lift.   Including multiple muscle groups increases the power output required for movement.  More power output = more energy spent and therefore more fitness is gained.  Power output potential is severely limited when using most machine weights. 

Machines have their place.  Generally their place is limited to rehab applications and body building pursuits.  For the purpose of optimal health and fitness, free-weights are infinitely more effective even/especially for beginners.  The skills, abilities and health you build while using them are much more applicable to daily life and health outside of the gym.  And that is the point, right?