First and foremost, let’s define these…
Free weights: Just as they sound, free weights are “free” from any sort of machine or apparatus so they don’t limit the range of motion with which you can use them. Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc.
Resistance machines: These are those big, often complex-looking machines that you see in the gym. They usually target specific muscles instead of employing entire muscle groups (ex. hip adbuctor/adductor machine vs. single leg squat).
So, which one is better?
I often get this question in the initial consultation I have with my personal training clients. They typically have no experience in strength training and get a little freaked out by the idea of using free weights because they don’t know how to perform the moves or what they should feel like. On the flipside, the machines can be intimidating and confusing.
To answer the question which one is better, I would say neither is better or worse, they’re just different. I much prefer to use free weights whenever I can, but a few of the machines can be helpful, especially for newbies.
I prefer free weights…
I prefer free weights (check out some of my dumbbell workouts) because they tend to mimic a more natural movement, whereas machines focus in on certain muscles that are rarely used on their own in ADL (activities of daily living). This is why so many gyms you walk into nowadays are big empty spaces with free weights, ropes, and pull-up bars. These gyms work on functional fitness, which focuses on training for strength and adaptability that can be applied to daily tasks and real-life situations outside of the gym. These types of movements utilize muscle groups, not isolated muscles, which is best accomplished with the use of free weights.
On the other hand – and why I say machines can still have their place – the freedom of motion that makes free weights beneficial for strength training also makes them more dangerous because they require more stabilization and balance. For example, I often see gym-goers attempting kettlebell swings without the proper form and oy, not good. Instead of using their hips to drive the kettlebell they use their arms to pull it upwards. This puts a lot of unnecessary strain on the shoulders and can lead to injury.
So, like I said, I think free weights can offer a lot of value in terms of functional strength but I wouldn’t recommend using them without the proper instruction or know-how. If you’re new to strength training and aren’t working with a trainer who can help you with form and progression, resistance machines are probably a better place for you to start.
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