Free Weights Or Machines | Which Is Better?
My wife gave birth to our son via C-section. Because of the surgery, she could not nurse and breastfeed our son as much as she wanted. We had no choice but to give our baby boy top feed (some sugary branded powdered milk).
We were adamant that Vince should drink at least 50% of her mom’s milk, so I ordered a Philip Avent Breast Pump. It was really convenient for Gia to pump her milk and store it for future use.
Anyways my point is that the hospital we were in had mothers who were fully capable of feeding their newborns with their milk (they had natural births) but still chose to give the top feed as the hospitals were promoting the powered milk brand like crazy! Sad but true. 🙁
The same thing happens in any commercial gym! Machines (including cardio machines) are promoted the same way powdered milk is promoted in hospitals!
When a guy joins a gym to gain some weight and build muscle, he is spoilt for choices. With a wide array of machines for literally every body part, what are the chances he will start his program with pull-ups and free squats?
Machines are promoted as being safe. But, ironically, that’s not true.
Let’s understand why this is the case.
Using free weights (barbells and dumbbells) improves joint stability, reduces the risk of injury and builds real-life functional strength.
Weight lifters are guilty of performing isolated exercises mainly using machines emphasizing only one plane of motion- the sagittal plane. This causes muscle imbalances, and your muscles become prone to injury.
For example, when using smith machines (or any other machine), there is a set trajectory and no freedom of movement. Working out this way upsets your muscle ability to work in a natural setting, putting unnecessary stress on your ligaments and joints.
In real life, our muscles are used to working in all three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. So, yes, there are three planes of motion.
It is forward or backward. Most gym movements, like lat pulldown, bench press, and biceps curl, are in this plane of motion.
It is side to side. Movements like lateral raises, side lunges, and side shuffling are in this plane.
It is rotational. Swinging a golf club is an example of moving in the transverse plane. It, therefore, becomes imperative to include movements in the frontal and transverse planes as well.
Ideally, this can be achieved by using functional whole-body exercises involving multiple planes of motion and joints, mimicking real-life activities. Think squat, deadlift, wood chop, and medicine ball side throw (rotational exercises), to name a few using only barbells and dumbbells.
So if you want a physique that is not just for show but also has athletic and real-life functional strength, choose free weights over machines.
Free Weights Burn More Calories
When you do a squat or a deadlift, dozens of stabilizers work along with your prime movers, i.e., quadriceps, to stabilize your body. More musculature used equates to more calorie burn.
Related Article: How To Squat | The Definitive Guide
Free Weights Are Inexpensive And Take Less Space
I recently built a home gym comprising purely free weights and barbells. Including the power rack, it cost me less than $1000 (INR 65,000), which is equivalent to the cost of a single-strength station!
With So Many Benefits Of Using Free Weights, Are There Any Cons?
Many experts suggest starting beginners off on machines. ‘Once they get used to strength training, slowly shift them to free weights,’ they say. In theory, it may seem like a sensible approach.
Well, I disagree! My son started enjoying the sugary powdered milk so much that he didn’t seem eager when we gave him breast milk! The same thing happens when a trainee gets used to machines.
It’s fun to use machines, isn’t it? One can simply load up the stack and focus on the effort, right? Your body doesn’t need to balance the weight and focus on the movement. Compared to compound lifts like squats and military presses, they seem intimidating! A lot of questions come to your mind.
What if I injure myself? What if I screw up my back?
First, let me start by saying that weight training is one of the safest activities one can indulge in. You get injured only because of two reasons, insufficient warm-up and incorrect technique. 1https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1994/02000/Relative_Safety_of_Weightlifting_and_Weight.8.aspx With weight training, you require much less skill than playing a sport, say golf.
For example, you don’t enter the greens with your golf kit and start hitting! Instead, you spend a few months in the practice range. You probably hire a coach to help you with the fundamentals. Your coach video-shoots your swing and gives you tips on how to improve it. That’s what I did, at least!
Weight training is also a skill and requires you to learn certain key techniques before you can load up the weight. So my recommendation would be to hire a coach/trainer or enroll in my Exercise Mastery course to perfect each movement pattern.
Progress slowly; ask your trainer or training partner to videotape your technique and keep improving. Train yourself to learn proper technique, and I promise you that you will almost never injure yourself.
Can One Use Machines When You Have A Pre-condition Or When It Is Necessary?
Yes, you can.
Gia (my wife) had acute lower abdomen pain and couldn’t get in the proper position to feed Vince. However, Vince was a healthy child with a solid appetite, and breast milk was not enough to fill his tummy, hence the supplementation.
In the same way, machines can be used to supplement your workouts given the following pre-conditions or when it is necessary.
You are a beginner, and you are shit scared (or have reservations about doing squats/deadlifts) that you may end up screwing back no matter how many studies I quote that they are safest! In that case, at least get started with whatever is available. But do make sure that at least 75% of the time, you are using only barbells and dumbbells.
Let Me Further Break It Down For You
Instead of a machine shoulder press, always go for a seated dumbbell press. Once you have a few months of training behind your back, opt for standing military press. Lateral raise and posterior raise should always be performed using dumbbells.
Start with push-ups and graduate to flat and incline bench presses. Alternate using barbells and dumbbells.
Most guys cannot pull their body weight. Until you gain enough strength to perform a pull-up, opt for a lat pulldown. Few fancy gyms have assisted chin-up and dip machines. They can be ideal for beginners to start with.
Barbell Curls and tricep extensions are great mass builders for your arms. However, do note your arms are indirectly involved when you perform compound lifts like pull-ups, dips etc. So limit the total volume when training your arms.
As I mentioned before, not many gyms have a squat stand (especially gyms in India); you can start with dumbbells, lunges and leg presses. But make it a point to get access to a squat rack or, better, a power rack if you want to build yourself up. Free squats are exceptional!
Parallel Grip Deadlifts
If you have long limbs in relation to your torso, a parallel grip deadlift should be your number one priority. Unfortunately, the shrug/trap bar is very uncommon, and in most cases, you will need to purchase your own.
I highly recommend doing so as I can promise you it will be the best health investment you would ever make. But, of course, you can start with the conventional/sumo deadlift in the meantime.
Related Article: Trap Bar Deadlift: The Definitive Guide
Weight training is tough work! First, you need to get your hands dirty. Then, you must go through the pain of doing a free squat (instead of using the smith machine).
Beautiful bodies are forged out of hard work, and free weights (both barbell and dumbbells) is hard work. Machines, not so much. There is a huge difference between running on the treadmill and sprinting out in the open (with, of course, the added benefits of fresh air).
The sooner you get used to the fact that free weights are superior to machines and appreciate it from day one (or whatever day you are at) sooner you will start getting fabulous results.
What are your free weights and machine mix? Have any questions you like to ask me? Let me know in the comments below!
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About Akash Sehrawat
Akash is a creator of 25+ programs and certificate courses in which more than 200,000 students have enrolled both on Udemy and Fabulous Body's native platform. Akash is also an author of three books that can be found on Amazon. His answers on Quora have gathered more than 12 million views in less than a year.
It’s an old article of yours. After reading this I virtually left all the machines in the gym. I stick to free weights only for the last 10 months. I like the way you disclose the hard truths. Though I never hired a coach, but from guys who have taken membership are of the same opinion as it is described by you. hats off dear Akash.
Hey Sunil, its always a pleasure to read your comments:) Happy to know the trust you have placed in me. I strive to wirte articles that are evergreen and looking back at them from time to time helps.
All the best to you..
As always Akash you hit the target with such an useful article !
Keep the good job my friend !
Thank you Luis:)
I’m encouraged by this article, and needed it.
During lockdown at home I’ve been using free weights and body weight, and getting nervous that I am missing out on what the gym machines have to offer, I see now that im on the right track and have nothing to be anxious about.
Knowledge is power.
Good to know this:)