Machine’s Vs Free Weights, What’s the Verdict?

We all know the guy that comes in does his three sets of 10 on chest press, lat pull down, shoulder press and leg press (if he’s feeling really adventurous).

When I worked in gyms I tried my best to get these guys to transition to more of a free weight centred routine. Some would take to it, others would try my way for a few weeks and then drop off.

I shouldn’t be so judgemental but I’d often think ‘what’s the point?’ Wouldn’t he be as well sit on the couch for the evening? Obviously that’s not true but I couldn’t help think it.

Yes sitting on his arse isn’t going to be as beneficial as the little bit of movement he’ll be getting in the gym, but if you’re going to go to the gym in the first place you may as well make the best of it surely?

When it comes down to it are machines all that bad? Should we be using them at all? If so are some machines better (I understand that’s a very broad statement) than free weights?

The Extra Benefits of Free Weights

One reason I love strength training is how efficient it is. When you decide to do exercises which use a lot of muscle groups you are getting great ‘bang for your buck’. For example, if you do a barbell bench press you are using your shoulders, chest, arms and even back (to stabilise). That’s a lot of muscle groups for one single exercise.

Due to the fixed nature of machines, you don’t get that same number of muscles being used with a machine. A chest press machine, which is a similar movement to a bench press, doesn’t activate the same number of muscles. They tend to isolate muscles, in the case of a chest press that’s the pec muscles.

Aside from the number of muscles being used, machines won’t activate certain muscles to the same degree as machines. The activation of the pecs are higher when doing a DB bench press in comparison to using a smith machine.

Are There Benefits to Machines?

Of course there are reasons to use machines. I get clients to use them in most sessions.

One reason is to train body parts that are difficult to train using free weights. You might need to throw in a machine or two to hit a certain area of the body. The lat pull down is an example. Vertical pulling movements should be incorporated into any routine, however, many clients will be unable to perform pull ups or chin-ups. That’s where a lat pull down can be used.

Sometimes this depends on the individual. Perhaps an exercise doesn’t feel comfortable or a previous injury limits what the individual can do. Female clients often find the hip thrust uncomfortable (particularly if they’ve had a C-section), therefore I often swap it for a leg press.

I find cable exercises are a great addition to a program. One of my favourite core exercises is a paloff press. Personally I rather do this exercise using a resistance band, however many gyms don’t have these so using a cable pulley is a fantastic alternative.

The Best of Both Worlds

At the end of the day the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Yes for the most part free weights are probably better. However, your program may be lacking somewhat if you neglect machines all together.

Throwing in a machine here or there will ensure that you hit every muscle in the body but don’t overdo it. Don’t fall into the trap of doing more and more machine work just because it’s ‘easier’.

How to Use Machines?

Use machines but use them sparingly towards the end of your workouts. As these contraptions completely isolate muscles it isn’t a good idea to do them early in a workout.

For example, doing a tricep pushdown before a bench press mightn’t be a good idea as your triceps will be fatigued meaning you can’t lift as much weight.

Machines should be kept in a moderate rep range (8-12 reps). This is simply down to the fact that they use less muscles so won’t be able to take heavy loads with good technique.

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