Modern gyms are full of highly expensive and modern machines to exercise all possible body parts. Many gyms focus on machines so heavily there are only a few dumbbells and no barbells at all while others devote a corner for free weights dumbbells and barbells alike. Still you have likely heard someone say machines are no good. So now you are probably wondering why are free weights better than machines? Are machines really no good at all?
Home vs Gym
Let’s face it. Machines are very expensive and take up a lot of space. Modern gyms fill entire rooms with machines and spend tens of thousands of Euros on machines alone. If you are training at home, you will most likely want to opt for free weights instead due to these two factors. Free weights cost only a fraction of the price of machines and take very little space. Even the price of a gym membership for a single year is enough to get you started on free weights.
Ease of Use & Safety
The major advantage of machines is their ease of use and safety. Machine come up with a fixed movement pattern and, therefore, they are easy to start using even for beginners. Machines usually have instructions on how to use them and changing weights is very fast. Thanks to the fixed movement pattern, machines are also safer to use since they don’t require any stabilization from muscles. Do you have injuries? If so, you might want to opt for machines since they allow to isolate specific muscles which is great for rehabilitating injuries.
Free weights, on the other hand, require you to learn proper form first. Improper form and too heavy weights are a surefire way to get injuries with free weights. However, it is possible to select too heavy weights even with machines although with machines it is easier to stop in the middle of an exercise and drop weights.
Most free weight exercises are often compound exercises utilizing a range of muscles making your workout more efficient and giving you more bang for your buck so to say. Think of the big three: squat, deadlift and bench press which utilize several major parts of your body incorporating a plethora of your muscles. When you train with free weights, your muscles have to coordinate together and stabilize your body. They are directly applicable to real life situations. With free weights you can be sure the strength you gain is useful in daily life.
While the isolating nature of machines can be a savior when rehabilitating injuries, it also comes with its disadvantages. Machines limit your ROM (range of motion). Ideally, you should always perform with full ROM so you will get stronger for the entire length of the motion. Machines also tend to come with unnatural movement patterns which aren’t practical in real life. In addition, since they are isolative by nature, they do not train all muscles normally involved when performing movements giving you a false sense of strength. And just like certain kinds of dumbbells, machines can be outgrown.
Barbell exercises often require spotters due to safety concerns. You have likely seen someone training with machines because they don’t have anyone to spot them and, therefore, can’t train safely. Machines, on the other hand, have fixed movement pattern and are very safe to use, even alone. However, if you are training at a gym (which you most likely are if you have access to machines) you can ask fellow trainees to assist you. But if you are training with dumbbells, then this isn’t an issue for you since dumbbells don’t require spotters like barbells do.
You have likely heard the argument ”Cavemen didn’t have access to machines” before. But should machines really be abandoned in all cases? I don’t think so. While I would warmly recommend free weights over machines, machines definitely do have their place. If you are paying for a gym membership and are in the process or rehabilitating injuries, then you might want to consider giving machines a try as a part of your workout routine. But in most other cases I would incline towards free weights for the sake of price, training efficiency and applicable real life strength.