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Weight machines vs. free weights - which is better?

I spend so much time discussing free weights and body weight exercises, so I spend very little time discussing resistance training machines! This probably makes me sound like a “free-weight snob”! I swear I’m not. I have no problem with weight machines. In fact, I used them when I first started getting into strength training and continue to use them for certain exercises. In this post, first I’ll talk about why I like them, and then mention when it may be time to graduate and begin incorporating free weights.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 405 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Pros of Using Weight Lifting Machines

I mentioned that when I first started getting into resistance training, I used weight machines. The reason is these machines can help you get a feel for how to perform the move properly and, in general, can help protect you from injury. This is because these machines restrict your range of motion so that when you’re performing the move, your form is nearly perfect.

Why nearly perfect and not perfect all the time?

Imagine: you’re using the shoulder press machine. For those of you that aren’t quite sure which one that is, it’s the machine where you sit in what looks to be a high-back chair with a handle placed in front of each shoulder.

You grab the handles with both hands and press them to the sky. As you press your hands up, your shoulders kick in to help you lift those handles and as you lift, the machine guides you through the perfect motion. But injuries can still occur if the weight being used is too heavy, for example.

How Resistance Training Machines Can Lead to Injury

We need to remember to breathe properly. As you lift the handles during a machine shoulder press, breathe out. As you bring them back down, breathe in. You can use this same breathing technique for almost any weight lifting exercise. An easy way to remember when to breathe is to use this rule: breath out upon exertion. When you exert the most effort, that’s when you exhale. But a common mistake, even when folks use these machines, is to hold their breath.

Also, have you ever seen people just swinging the weights back and forth when they’re using these machines? It’s better to use controlled movements to prevent injury. Plus, when folks swing the weights like that, they’re often using a weight that’s either too heavy or too light. When you’re just starting out, aim for a weight that you can lift 12-15 times. As you become more comfortable with the machine, you can increase the weight so that you can only lift it 8-10 times.

Here’s a helpful tip, as you lift the weight and are exhaling with exertion, count to 3. So, as you lift the weight and exhale, count 1… 2…. 3. Then, as you lower the weight, inhale and again count 1…. 2…. 3.

More Benefits of Using Weight Machines

Oh, and another advantage is that these machines allow you to increase and decrease the amount of weight you’re lifting really easily. Usually, it’s as simple as moving a pin to a new weight on the weight stack.

These machines can also help you perform exercises that simply aren’t practical to do with free weights. For example, let’s say you want to work on your glutes and hamstrings. The leg curl machine is great for building up those muscles. (That’s the one where you lay flat on a bench, face down, and place the backs of your feet under a padded bar. You then lift your feet and while you lift, the bench keeps your knees still, forcing you to use only your glutes and hamstrings.)

Can you imagine trying to do this move with free weights? It wouldn’t be all that practical and wouldn't be great for balance. Machines like these can be great for isolating certain muscle groups.

As long as you’re using the machines properly and safely, you can absolutely get some fantastic results and build that muscle.

When Should You Consider Free Weights?

I usually recommend folks incorporate free weights into their routine because using free weights forces you to use all those little muscles you didn’t even know existed, like those that help with balance. Remember how I mentioned that machines help keep your form perfect? Well, it’s kind of a Catch-22… because the machines restrict your movements, some of the smaller, stabilizing muscles may not kick in.

Let’s use the shoulder press example from before. When you ditch the shoulder press machine and try to perform the same move with dumbbells in each hand, you may find that initially, it feels odd. As your press the weights towards the sky, your arms might start to move too far forward or too far backward as you try and balance the weight.

This is perfectly normal. All those little muscles that weren’t being used when using the machines have to kick in to balance the weight. In fact, you may find that the next day, you start feel sore in places you didn’t even know existed.

This is why I like incorporating some free weights into a resistance training program.

The Bottom Line

Using machines for building muscles, isolating specific muscle groups, and strengthening your bones is great. I especially like to recommend them when someone is brand new to resistance training. But to be sure you work your muscles to their fullest extent, incorporate some free weights every now and then.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 405 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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