By Robert Vecchioni
First of all, what does the term free weights even mean?
In the American Heritage dictionary, the definition of free weights is a weight, such as a barbell or dumbbell, that is not attached to another structural device and is raised and lowered by use of the hands and arms in weightlifting.
Basically, in everyday lingo, free weights are barbells, dumbbells and other weights that are not machine driven or attached.
Many people who have never used free weights may be intimidated to do so, and that is unfortunate, because free weight workouts add an entirely different dimension to strength training.
One of the major health advantages of lifting free weights is that the muscles have to work harder to stabilize your body because you have to control the weight throughout space. This requires the use of more muscle per movement, which equates to a more challenging workout.
In contrast, when you use a machine, also known as pin loaded or selectorized equipment, the movement throughout space is pre-determined by the design of the machine, and thus your muscles move the weights through a predetermined angle and range of motion. Stabilizing muscles are much less involved.
Another major advantage of free weight training is that the range of motion and angles of the movement can be adapted specifically to a person's anatomy. A machine will have more restrictions, because again the movement/range of motion is determined by the machine itself and not the person's body. In this regards, often times a fuller range of motion is achieved by using free weights, which is also beneficial, as a greater range of motion will involve the use of more muscle fibers and create more flexibility.
Lastly, free weights allow you to more effectively perform compound movements; those exercises that move the body through more than one joint movement, thereby utilizing more muscle. (In contrast, isolation exercises only move the body through a single-joint movement. ). Compound movements use more muscle, including more core and stabilizer muscles, which will in turn burn more calories, to perform the movement. A great example of a compound movement that is easier done with free weights than machinery is a dumbbell squat and press, in which a pair of dumbbells are held at shoulder level, a squat is performed and at the top of the movement, the dumbbells are pressed overhead. This compound movement requires the use of at least 90% of the muscles of your body!
Still, with all of the benefits of free weight training, using strength training machinery does have a few advantages when compared to free weight use.
One of the major benefits of using exercise machinery is safety. When using a machine, since a predetermined angle and range of motion is utilized, the movement is less complex, and therefore there is less possibility for error and injury.
A second major benefit is that when using machinery, all that is typically required is a pull of a few knobs to set up the seat and hand positions, and inserting a steel pin in a slot. There is no loading up of plates required!
Most circuit training involves the use of machinery for exactly these two reasons, ease of set up and use and safety.
Lastly, machines can allow for an easier isolation, which makes it easier to target a specific muscle. This is particularly true for someone who is new to strength training and has not had much experience with isolating muscles during exercise. A great example of this is the seated leg extension. To isolate the quadriceps (frontal thigh muscles), the leg extension is more effective than a compound movement with free weights such as a squat. If you have ever experienced the burn from that last few reps of leg extensions, then you have a pretty good idea of what isolating a muscle can feel like!
The debate of which is better, machines versus free weights is like asking which is better for me, eating broccoli or eating carrots? Both are good for you and each play a role in your diet. One may have more appeal, but if you can manage to get both into you diet, then all the better.
Remember, you owe it to yourself to exercise!
Robert Vecchioni, co-owner of Electra, is a Florida licensed acupuncture physician. He also is a certified personal trainer who has worked in the fitness industry for more than 20 years.