This week, I’d like to expand on another of the 10 “back to basics” fitness tips that I listed in this column a couple of weeks ago. One of them was to perform your strength training workouts using free weights as opposed to machines whenever possible. While both can provide you with great results, there are some benefits that come from using free weights that just aren’t realized when relying on strength training machines for your workout.
If you are new to exercise and to strength training in particular, free weights are dumbbells and barbells. “Free” meaning that they aren’t affixed to anything and can move freely in any direction that you move them. Strength training machines, on the other hand, are apparatuses with weights attached to them that can be selected by moving a pin to different locations along the stack for more or less weight.
The main difference between free weights and machines is in the amount of movement and range of motion that an exerciser can achieve with either type of equipment. Since machines are fixed in place, they can only move in specific, linear, motions. While this can be a benefit when trying to strengthen and tone specific muscles, it is a limiting factor since there can be no variation in the direction that you push or pull the load provided. Additionally, if one has an arthritic or injured joint and the specific line of movement on the machine causes pain, there are no options to adjust or modify the exercise to make it more comfortable.
Strength training workouts can be traced back in time all the way back to civilizations like the one that existed in Ancient Greece. At that time, weight was provided by lifting rocks, logs, animals and even other exercisers. The movements used were all multi-joint and required balance and stability as well as pushing and pulling strength. This meant that not only were participants strong, they were able to perform complex movements like those required for sports and/ or for military service.
In more recent times, the popularity of bodybuilding has resulted in an approach to strength training that focuses on specific muscles that are worked in isolation. If you’ve been to a commercial gym, you’ve likely heard someone say “I’m training back and biceps today”; meaning that they’ll be isolating those muscle groups in an effort to overload them and make them stronger and more toned. One of the more popular ways to do this is to use machines designed to work the chosen muscles in isolation, requiring little if any assistance from muscle groups that provide balance and stability.
A clear advantage to using free weights is that the training effect carries over to everyday activities to a much greater degree. Pursuits like gardening, shopping and playing golf, move the body through an infinite number of stabilizing and balancing adjustments. When doing strength training movements with free weights, secondary muscle groups and stabilizers are called into action to make the exercise more efficient. An illustration of this would be the standing dumbbell biceps curl. While the “prime movers” in this movement are the biceps, muscles in the back, abdomen, hips and even feet must be actively firing for the exerciser to be able to curl the weight. The equivalent curling exercise on a machine isolates the biceps while doing all of the balancing and supporting that the exerciser’s body would normally do. In other words, you can work more muscles in less time using free weights.
In my opinion, the best time to use weight machines is towards the end of a workout when fatigue may be a factor. At that point, having the stabilizing done by the machine is a good thing to minimize the risk of injury.