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The Bottom Line in Health: What Type of Weight Should You Be Moving?

Have you ever been in the middle of your workout, pushing hard on a stationary machine, and looked over to observe the muscular group of exercisers hanging out by the free weights and barbells? Did you wonder if moving from machine to machine was the most effective routine to achieve your fitness goals? Should you be bench pressing and using the dumbbells instead of slaving away on the various machines? 

This is a question that many exercisers ask themselves as they hit workout plateaus or begin to go to the gym on a consistent basis. Fortunately, both forms of equipment have some benefits, but each also has its own set of drawbacks. The easiest way to delineate the differences between machines and free weights is to understand what is right for you. Machines are generally located in the front of the gym and organized as stations to work each muscle in your body. The machines offer a comfortable place for you to lie, sit on or stand at while the machine provides resistance and guides your body smoothly through a specific movement. The only thing you need to do is push or pull!

The primary benefit to using machines is that they are easy to use. They are fairly self-explanatory, so those who do not want to invest in a personal trainer can create an exercise routine on their own by simply reading the instructions located on each machine. In addition to this, using machines can also reduce the risk of injury.

Those who are coming to the gym for the first time, or whose last visit to the gym was so long ago that they cannot remember when it was, are not familiar with the appropriate range of motion and proper exercise form. Injuries are much more likely to occur when one goes out of the body’s preferred range of motion, and weight machines help to ensure this does not happen. Furthermore, machines can be very helpful when one is recovering from an injury. They are a safe option because they can isolate work on a particular body part, while the injured or rehabilitating area remains at rest. This allows one to remain in shape while progressing through the healing process. The final benefit of using machines as part of an exercising regimen is that they allow for a faster workout. Since one needs only to sit in the machine and select a weight, one can move through his or her workout quickly. One can also easily perform supersets (performing two exercises back to back without any rest) by moving from one machine to another without having to worry about readjusting dumbbells or finding ones that are an appropriate weight for the next set. These reasons support the use of the machines for certain populations, but exercising with machines can also have a number of downsides.

While machines reduce poor form and lower the risk of injury, they increase your chances of injury caused by performing the same movement over and over again for many weeks at a time. By working the exact same muscles, tendons and ligaments each time you are at the gym, you are setting yourself up for overuse injuries. When you use free weights, you reduce this risk since you are more likely to follow a slightly different pathway (while always making sure to maintain good form) each time you perform the movement. Even if you are following the right range of motion, you can still overload your muscles with too much weight and cause a muscle strain or tear that can leave you sidelined for weeks at a time. You still need to use common sense when working out with machines, and know your limits. Beyond this risk, working out using machines also gives one a false sense of strength gain. Performing a movement on a machine and lifting something in real life each places the body under different types of stress. The increases in weight one may see on the machines may not translate to greater strength outside of the gym. For example, when bending over to pick up a heavy box, one does not have the opportunity to rest the non-working parts of the body against a machine and isolate all of the force to the working muscles. Additional muscles, mainly those in the core, will be needed to stabilize the body while picking up the box. If these other muscles aren’t strong as well, you may have a hard time.

Free weights, in the form of dumbbells and barbells, are the alternatives to machines for your strength-training program. For beginners who have invested in some personal training sessions, or those who are just past the beginner stage, free weights are your better option to maximize strength gains in the gym.

With free weights, each exercise calls into play many additional muscles that help to support your body through the lift. Examples of these are the abdominal core muscles, erector spinae muscles that extend your vertebral column, and some leg muscles if you are performing the exercise in a standing position. Because of this, one does not really have to worry about devoting a specific block of time to core or abdominal training since these muscles will have been indirectly worked throughout the workout. In addition, the balance and coordination of the body can be improved using free weights since more of the stabilizer muscles will be called upon. You can add an extra balance challenge to the workout by incorporating a stability ball (large, inflated exercise ball) into some exercises. An example would be performing a chest press with dumbbells while lying on the ball. Another benefit to exercising with free weights is that many of the exercises performed with free weights are very similar to the actions one does as part of his or her normal routine. As a result, the transfer of strength from the gym to our daily activities will be much greater than it is with machines. Typical examples of these exercises are bent-over rows, squats and step-ups.

Furthermore, working out with free weights strengthens the body’s proprioception. This is the brain’s ability to know where the body is in space and whether or not it is balanced. This is a critical skill for athletes or anyone who plays sports, so choosing to exercise with free weights will help to train the mind and improve one’s physical performance. Lastly, free weights are an excellent option for those who travel frequently and do not have regular access to a gym or for those who simply can’t afford a gym membership. By investing in a good set of dumbbells on which the weight can easily be adjusted, one can perform a full-body workout without even leaving their room. While there are many benefits to working out with free weights, there are a number of important drawbacks to mention. There is a significantly increased risk of injury when one is not using proper form during a move. When performing free weight exercises, it is quite easy to move a part of your body out of alignment and derail your proper form. Because of this, people needs to be absolutely sure that what they are doing is correct and safe, and be able to recognize their form is inappropriate.

Furthermore, gyms that do not have a lot of free weights may become crowded, and there may be a long waiting line for certain weights. Moreover, once you have gotten the weights, if the barbell requires removing or adding more weight, this can decrease your efficiency in the gym because a great deal of time will be spent preparing the next exercise.

All in all, while both free weights and machines have their pros and cons, free weights tend to be a better choice for almost everyone. Even beginners should try to progress to free weights as quickly as possible since they will see more noticeable improvements with this type of equipment. Every once in a while, a session with a trainer is a great idea to ensure you are using correct form, and to give you fresh ideas for different exercises to increase your interest in working out and prevent exercising plateaus. This is not to say you shouldn’t use machines at all. They can be a good option when you just need a break from free weights or are in a lower-intensity period in your training plan. They are also good for those who have forgotten the proper technique and need a reminder.

No single piece of weight training equipment is best for everyone. Both free weights and machine weights can help you increase your strength. The choice really comes down to your personal experience, as well as your access to equipment. The bottom line? Choose a weight training system that you enjoy and that fits into your lifestyle. And whatever type of resistance you choose, remember that proper technique is more important than the specific type of equipment.


A Note on the Author: The Bottom Line In Health seeks to provide simple fitness and nutrition tips for the Yeshiva University community. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness and Nutrition Specialist, it is my goal to enhance the reader’s understanding of how to maintain a healthy standard of living while improving performance in and out of school and supporting an overall sense of well- being.