Free weights. Resistance machines. It’s a debate that’s been argued since the beginning of time (in the body building and physique world at least). What you need to remember is that everyone has a different body type and size. One (wo)man’s limbs may be longer than another, your torso may be abnormally long compared to someone else’s. We’re all unique in the most wonderful of ways and methods that work for some, may not for another. Both free weights and resistance machines have their advantages and disadvantages, and your decision of what to use may be based on your goals.
So let’s start positive, THE BENEFITS:
Machines! They’re easy to use, and most of them have that little diagram (which is often worse than a 5 year olds scribble) or you can slyly watch the person on the machine before you. You also have the benefit of pushing for heavier weights without having to ask someone to spot you, we all know how inconvenient that can be if you’re a lone cowboy! Machines are also great if you’re recovering from an injury or have a low level of fitness as it can be easier to work around certain injuries.
Free weights! They help you build functional strength and work more of your stabiliser muscles, meaning that it will help you adapt your gym work into everyday movements (because functional means being able to take double steps up the stairs with shopping bags). You also have the ability to perform a bigger range of motion (ROM) and move more naturally. Free weights also provide the option of hundreds and millions of variations as opposed to a single plane of motion with machines (up and down, backwards and forwards, etc., etc.
Unfortunately, machines promote structural imbalances and can leave you at risk of injury or joint pain. They restrict range of motion and let’s face it, the machines don’t fit everyone. Especially females, who I know to have issues with machine preacher curls in particular. Personally, the machine just doesn’t fit my size or shape (mainly because my boobs get crushed). By using free weights or cables, they give you no option but to learn the correct technique. More importantly, free weights force you to use your stabiliser muscles. For exercises such as standing dumbbell shoulder press, you also incorporate and engaged your abs to keep you steady and balance, whereas you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this with a machine.
A more specific focus is free weights vs. the Smith machine. Have you ever noticed how you can lift more weight on the smith machine that a barbell? This is because machines decrease optimal muscle activation due to restricted movements and can actually lead to loss of power development, and I’m sure that’s not on anyone’s ‘GOALS ON 2017’ list! Thinking about squatting, the Smith machine will allow you to load more weight as the fixed bar prevents you from having to focus on balance and waste your energy. However, because of the bar being fixed, it does compromise your planes of motion.
What does the PMF team verdict? It really depends on your goal(s) and a combination of both can help you reach those goals if used correctly. However, if you’re wanting to rack up those numbers for bragging rights, machines are more likely to be your thing (don’t listen to the guy that Smith chest presses rather than barbell pressing). But if your focus is to improve your mobility and general bodily well-being, free weights are going to be your best friend! More importantly, don’t overcomplicate it, think simple – did you ever see Brian the caveman using resistance machines?
Luebbers, P. E. & Fry, A. C. (2016). The Kansas Squat Test Modality Comparision: Free Weights vs. Smith Machine. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30 (8), 2186-2193. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001404
Poliquin Group. (2012). Tip 55: Train With Free Weights Instead of Machine. Retrieved from: http://www.lifestylebypoliquin.com/Lifestyle/TipoftheDay/404/Tip_55_Train_With_Free_Weights_Instead_of_Machine.aspx
Poliquin Group. (2013). Tip 134: Train With Free Weights or A Barbell Instead of The Smith Machine To Get Stronger. Retrieved from: http://www.lifestylebypoliquin.com/Lifestyle/TipoftheDay/573/Tip_134_Train_With_Free_Weights_or_A_Barbell_Instead_of_The_Smith_Machine_To_Get_Stronger.aspx
Tumminello, N. (2014). 4 Training & Diet Arguments: Resolved! Retrieved from: https://www.t-nation.com/training/4-training-and-diet-arguments-resolved