There has been a ferocious debate going on in the fitness world for decades. The debate isn’t over what is the best training split, or even what is the best diet to lose body fat.
The debate centers on the apparatus we use to exercise -- free weights vs machines.
There are die-hard loyalists on both sides of the debate each offering quality arguments why their tools of the trade are superior.
Which side is right?
Let’s find out!
Arguments for Training with Only Free Weights
Proponent of training with free weights generally raise up four big issues as to why training with free weights is superior to training with machines:
Machines are “Non-Functional”
Machine exercises lock the body into a fixed plane of motion (which may or may not suit a given lifter’s biomechanics, which is another issue). As a result the gains in strength you achieve from using machines doesn’t translate as well to real-world applications.
Free Weights Train More Muscle Groups
When you lift free weights, you’re not only working the agonist (primary mover) but the surrounding stabilizer muscles that help you stay upright while lifting the weight. Using machines typically has you seated or lying down, which removes any work stabilizing muscles have to do.
Increased Muscle Damage
The more muscle damage you can create the more muscle growth you get (provided you consume adequate calories and protein).
Free Weights Produce Greater Gains in Strength
Strength gains are primarily driven by the CNS. Since your CNS has to work harder during free weight movements, training with machines, in theory, would lead to less increases in strength than free weights.
Arguments for Training with Only Machines
Machines Provide Constant Tension
When lifting a free weight, levels of tension experienced by the muscle go through periods of maximal tension and submaximal tension. For example when performing a dumbbell curl, tension is low on the biceps at the bottom and top of the movement. It reaches its peak when your lower arm is perpendicular to your upper arm.
However, when performing curls with a machine, tension remains constantly on the biceps throughout the entire range of motion.
Tension is Tension
Another popular argument among machine-only lifters is that a muscle doesn’t know what tool you’re using or how much weight you’re attempting to lift. It only recognizes tension.
If that’s the case, what does it matter whether the tension is supplied by a barbell, dumbbell, or cable column? After all, tension is tension.
Less Taxing on the CNS
Heavy strength training can place tremendous amounts of fatigue on the central and peripheral nervous systems, which requires a greater amount of recovery time, ultimately impacting how frequently you can workout.
Since machines place less strain on the CNS, the should allow an individual to train more frequently and complete more volume, which should allow for better muscle growth.
Better Muscle Isolation
One area where machines excel is in the area of isolation. While it’s not possible to completely isolate a muscle, the fact that machines fix you in one plane of motion reduce the use of body english, thereby decreasing the chances of other muscle groups chipping in to help you lift a weight and reducing tension on the target muscle group of the exercise.
Safely Train to Failure (and Beyond)
Let’s face it, training to complete failure on heavy compound barbell movements like the squat, deadlift, and bench press just isn’t smart. It’s a one way ticket to severe CNS fatigue, not to mention a significant increase in your risk of injury.
Machines allow gym goers to train to failure more safely, and since they limit compensation by other muscle groups, help ensure that it’s the target muscle group failing during the exercise.
Free Weights vs Machines -- The Final Verdict
Both sides make compelling arguments, which can make it difficult to decide which one is actually better.
But, here’s the thing.
It’s not an either/or situation.
The beauty of training is that you do not have to commit to one ideology and use only one tool to complete the job. You can use all the tools to help you accomplish your goals.
Whether it be building muscle, losing fat, or completing a body transformation, machines, free weights, and even bodyweight exercises can (and should) be utilized in your training program. For building total body strength, free weights come out on top, but for chasing muscle growth (hypertrophy) machines and free weights can both accomplish the job.
In the end, you don’t have to choose one or the other, similar to how you don’t have to eat all carbohydrates or all fat. You can have a mix of both, and shift the majority to whichever you prefer more (machines or free weights).
Having a healthy balance in your approach to training and diet will make for a much more enjoyable, sustainable, and successful life in fitness.