What is most beneficial for our training, train with free weights or with machines? This is a classic debate in the world of fitness. You go to a gym and whatever your goal ( toning, hypertrophy, recovery from injuries …), what is your choice: free weights or machines ?. There are those, who prefer the comfort of machines and the ones who prefer free weights to have more control over the movement.
As in almost all discussions, both parties have their reasons, and we are going to try to expose them in this article. The idea is to know the advantages and disadvantages of each one of the options to be able to use them in our training when it best suits us.
Proponents of machines often argue that muscle does not distinguish whether the load comes from free weights such as dumbbells or barbells, or a machine specifically designed to work a muscle. But this is not entirely true.
Machines follow a predetermined movement, and it is true that they work very specifically a muscle, this limits the range of individual movement and makes the person need to adjust the range of motion.
Machines are highly recommended for beginners in fitness and toning activities as they can easily be learning the movement to continue to work different muscles.
Given that beginners do not yet know the appropriate form of execution of the exercise, these machines also help prevent injuries
Training with machines is usually faster because you only have to sit or lie down and select the weight, a good example is when doing supersets you do not have to worry about readjusting the weights or find the appropriate plates for your next set.
Also, they are most useful when you recover from an injury, this may be a good option because they can isolate a body part in particular or muscle group while you can still rest the injured muscle, and this will allow you to keep fit while you’re in the process of recovery.
Another of the most notable benefits is the ease of use of machines, especially for people with little experience in the fitness rooms, as all aspects of the exercise are indicated and controlled. It is much harder to perform them improperly and thus designing routines for beginners in the weight room is much safer.
Normally the work done with machines is more analytical than with free weights, and although it depends on our goals, analytical work can be an advantage or a disadvantage. As disadvantage we can highlight that secondary muscles and stabilizers fail to be targeted, this can cause injuries in sports complex actions which need a general muscular development.
Machines vs. Free Weights
However, the main difference between free weights and machines is the fact that when using free weights, you can move in three dimensions: forward, backward, horizontally and vertically . This is important because that is the way your body moves normally in everyday life.
When performing a movement with dumbbells and other free weights,a continuous feedback process occurs by which agonist, antagonist, and synergist muscles work together to perform the desired movement.
On the other hand working with free weights (barbells, dumbbells, and weight plates) involves more muscle fibers and thus a greater amount of muscle mass. This, at the end of the day, offers increased metabolic demands, more stability, better coordination and excellent balance when compared with the work on the machines.
Free weights to develop the stabilizing muscles
If you use only machines to train, you lose the benefits of stimulating stabilizing muscles. What makes machines safe by limiting the movements is moreover a disadvantage. When training with barbells or dumbbells you force yourself to stabilize the weight and to do so the stabilizer muscles of the middle, abdominal and lumbar area must become involved
In contrast with a machine the movement is limited, and you know the weight will not go to anywhere other than the preset movement, so you will not be working these synergist muscles, even the eccentric phase is neglected because it is known that there is a top to restart the movement.
This makes training with free weights more complete, but having to balance the weight is not always an advantage, sometimes it means that you can not go as heavy as you could. A good example would be when we do chest presses; it will be easier with the Smith machine than with a barbell, on the machine the movement is up and down while with the barbell you must stabilize the lateral and frontal deviation.
Another thing is the nervous factor. Muscles have a nervous component and when training, as a result, new neuromuscular connections are established with more muscle fibers as a process of adaptation. Since free weight training requires more muscle stress, then more connections will be created and therefore greater gains in strength and muscle mass. On machines, these connections will also be established, but less muscle fibers will be recruited and therefore less strength gains as well.
In the sports world nothing, it is black or white, everything has its pros and cons. So the machines also have their positive side and it all depends on the goals you want to achieve.
Another point in its favor is the security and stability of the movement. Experienced people who need to handle a lot of weight should also prioritize the safety factor, and machines have it because if a set is to failure and there is no partner to grip the weight, machines usually always have safety limits to interrupt the movement.
If what is intended is to work a muscle in a specific way and you do not want others involved, machines are perfect for this to isolate the muscle you want to work and not let others steal the spotlight.
If the goal is to gain muscle mass you should know that the synergistic action of the stabilizing muscles is very important to gain volume as these muscles, provide support for larger muscles that stand out in volume. This makes sense because it would be like building a building without foundations, so not as many muscle imbalances are created, and muscle and nerve damage will be avoided.
Variety is the spice of life, and you always have to analyze what your goals are in order to choose the appropriate option. However as a fundamental principle of training is the variability of practice , it is highly recommended to switch these two methods of work in the gym, especially if your goal is the strength work in a healthy way.