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Fitness professionals constantly discuss the differences between free weights and machines. The layman also often asks if he or she should use free weights or machines. Why not use both? Machines are not beneficial solely for beginners and those recovering from injury. Free weights do not have to be restricted to advanced lifters. Both provide physical benefits when incorporated into a strength training program

Tradition recommends that individuals choose one or the other (machines or free weights). The idea is that machines benefit beginners because machines provide built-in proper motion for users. This thinking comes from the long held belief that an individual who has never strength trained, or one recovering from injury, will not be able to maintain controlled motion without creating excess stress on joints or without over-taxing the nervous system. These statements have truth in them… but not the whole truth.

Some believe intermediate to advanced weight lifters have no use for machines, believing that intermediate to advanced strength trainers have achieved proper movement patterns and developed strength in the joints, therefore, free weights and free weights alone are necessary to continue achieving strength and performance gains. This belief is simply not true.

Benefits of Free Weights

Free weights do provide the benefits listed above, such as developing joint stability, increasing nervous system communication and improving work, life and sporting movements. They key to getting the most out of free weights is not cheating the movements. Using momentum to move the weight takes the stress off of the muscles, with the result a loss of exercise efficiency.

Free weights strengthen the tendons and ligaments of the joints because the onus is placed on the individual to control the motion, which also benefits the nervous system. Different mechanoreceptors in the muscles must communicate when using free weights. During a dumbbell chest press, the brain must make decisions as to how much force is needed to push each side and in which direction. The right and left side of the body must also ‘talk’ so each side moves together. Using free weights can ensure both sides complete the same amount of work, reducing the chance of muscle imbalances on either side of the body.

Functional training is defined as any exercise which simulates life, work or sporting movements. Dumbbells, kettle bells, barbells, cables and bodyweight exercises easily mimic life situations. The body is integrated, with hundreds of muscles working together to perform a variety of functions. Functional free weight movements increase strength, power, endurance, flexibility, coordination, agility balance and speed.

Benefits of Machines

Machines are good options for novice strength trainers, those recovering from injury and individuals without a workout partner. Machines also benefit intermediate to expert strength trainers as a change-of-pace.

Beginners and those recovering from injury have much to gain from using machines. The body learns how to push and pull weight, which benefits the novice’s nervous system as well. For those recovering from injury , and those who put an ‘x’ in one of the latter age bracket choices on the forms we all must fill, machines are less stressful on the joints because the movement does not have to be completely controlled in the same manner as free weights.

Those without workout partners may benefit from using a high percentage of machine movements in their program. Machines eliminate or reduce the need for spotters, as users do not have to worry about falling weights, making the weight room safer and less intimidating.

Most of those who claim they never use machines are usually not telling the whole truth, as they will use the seated row and pull-down machines. Even experts use the machines as a change-of-pace, for high-repetition work, and when a lifting partner is not available.

Think Conjugate, Not Concurrent

Concurrent methods of fitness training are defined by completing tasks in a series of events -- a progression. Most competitive athletes follow progression-based programs. A crucial event is ‘X’ weeks away and the athlete wishes to perform at their best. In bodybuilding, for example, the first thing the bodybuilder must do is put on as much muscle mass as possible. The addition of muscle bulk typically comes with a slight increase in body fat as well. The next step in the progression is to remove the body fat without losing muscle mass. The last step in the progression is to taper the workouts and diet a week or two before competition, looking as big and lean as possible the day of the event. The problem with this concurrent strategy is that most individuals are not competitive athletes.

The concurrent method of fitness training is unfortunately still widely used today. Many individuals begin programs by working on core strength, developing bodyweight exercises, moving on to machines and then free weights. This strategy has definite benefits, as improving core strength is mandatory. Bodyweight exercises are challenging and can be taken on the road. The program goes array when prejudices are made against certain types of methods (i.e. machines) in favor of others (i.e. free weights).

Conjugate methods of fitness, alternatively, are defined as joining many aspects of exercise together in a pair, or pairs. The roots of the conjugate method spring forth from performance. It was established that lifting heavy weights, performing explosive exercises (i.e. jumping) and completing high repetitions all have benefits. The ‘ ah-ha’ moment occurred when it was discovered that heavy lifting, explosive exercises and repetitive effort movements, when combined into one program, induced greater performance and aesthetic benefits than any one of those activities alone.

Benefits of Combining Free Weights and Machines

A conjugate approach to fitness expands the individual’s quest for wellness by creating variety. Settling on one program and completing it over and over can take the joy out of wellness, and reduce the program’s effectiveness. Do not be a machine or a slave to a program. Do the exercises that make exercise enjoyable for you, whether it is free weights or machines, or both.

Mathematics has taught that there is always more than one way to get the same correct answer. A famous saying in the strength coach world is, “the best exercise is the one you are not doing.” Anyone who strength trains on a consistent basis, varies their exercise program and introduces variety into their exercise movement pattern will improve as long as they concentrate on proper form, eat right, and work hard.

Exercise is a science and the laws of physics provide built-in order, but the individual must maintain a creative spirit in order to enjoy the process, establishing a life of health and fitness.

Ken Kashubara is a regular contributor to the Fitness Town Health & Wellness On-line E-zine.  For more great articles like this one, please visit here and sign-up to receive our free newsletter once per month.

Healthy living to you and your families from all of us at Fitness Town.

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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009 at 2:11PM
my girlfriend and i have been weight training for 13 months now.
my weight bench has attachments for doing leg curls/extensions, and for doing flat flies. but aside from that it's free weights all the way.
i much prefer the range of movement free weights offer. i agree with the article - a bit more effort is required to keep everything steady.
Kyle Bailey
Thursday, May 21st, 2009 at 10:27AM
Tastes Great - Less Filling

This debate has raged for years and I hope those who engage in it read your post as it provides a great perspective.

I personally like free weights for most of my workout program as I usually get a better range of motion and can 'tweak' my positioning and such easier. Machines for me don't seem to fit my body mechanics quite as well.

Cable exercises would be the exception to that rule especially for shoulders and tricep press downs where feel I get a much better result that free weights because of the even resistance through the range of motion although I continue to use both for variety.

Great post!
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