President John F. Kennedy’s fitness initiative of the 1960’s began what has become the modern fitness phenomenon. Joe Gold started Gold’s Gym which pioneered the fitness center industry, and soon after came Nautilus exercise equipment which arguably took off faster than the fitness craze itself. This rather unfortunate event has led to widespread misuses of machine-based training, sometimes causing more harm than good. Here we will examine the pros and cons of exercise machines and compare them to those of free weights.
A Free Weight qualifies as anything you can pick up or hold and the only force necessary to overcome in order to move it is gravity. Examples of free weights include dumbbells, kettle bells, barbells and weighted plates. These objects train the human movement system in its most natural anatomical form, simulating the labor our ancestors performed to survive and thrive.
An Exercise Machine is a piece of equipment with one or more lever arms that move along a fixed path, often while the user is seated on or inside the machine. Examples include but are not limited to the common leg extension, seated hamstring curl, leg press and various upper-body press, pull, curl and crunch machines. These pieces of equipment isolate parts of the human movement system and guide the motion generated by the force of our muscles from one point to another and back again with little to no deviation.
Pros and Cons: Machines
Machines have plenty of pros to make them worth having in your average fitness center, but the list of cons should discourage most people from relying on them too much. Here’s why:
- Stabilization of resistance is done for you by the fixed machine making movement easier
- Easy to isolate specific muscle group by sitting to disengage surrounding muscles
- Faster resistance adjustments via pin, button or dial adjustment
- Trains movement to be dictated by machine
- Disengages majority of muscles that would otherwise naturally assist movement
- Vastly more expensive and time consuming compared to free weight equipment
- Does not enhance athletic performance or natural human movement
Pros and Cons: Free Weights
- Trains unrestricted, natural human movement
- Recruits complete human movement system
- Maximizes calorie expenditure, neuromuscular activation and strength adaptations
- Movements are more complex due to need for stabilization of resistance
- Greater complexity means more risk of injury
What It All Means
Because machines stabilize the movement they’re designed to perform for you, they can be excellent tools for individuals in need of rehabilitating after injury or severe muscle atrophy. They can also be supplemental to a bodybuilders training regimen as fatigue from free weight training sets and stabilization becomes difficult. Machines can allow for continued training efforts while removing much of the risks involved with controlling movement.
Aside from these two scenarios, free weight training will always be more advantageous than working out on a machine, even for beginners. When I was rehabilitating from rotator cuff surgery, the only machine my physical therapists ever put me on was a cable system. Cables create resistance from a fixed point, like a machine, but they allow for a much wider range of motion away from that point of resistance, like free weights. They never placed me on a device that took movement control out of my hands. So even those undergoing muscular rehab should use free weights to re-develop the ability to move freely.
Next time you venture into a gym, reconsider any exercises you were planning on sitting down for. Give the barbells, kettle bells and dumbbells a shot. If you’re not confident in using them, or any piece of equipment for that matter, ask a trainer at the gym for assistance. I can bet that once you learn how to condition, strengthen and grow your muscles more efficiently by using free weights and some cable exercises, you’ll never need a machine again!