I’m going to go ahead and lay it out on the table – I don’t like machines. Can they have a place in your workout routine? I suppose they could (think injury), but there isn’t much that a machine could do that free weights can’t do better. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of using free weights over machines.
- Teaches you proper form – It’s hard to learn proper form with a machine. There’s only one way to move the weight. Free weights teach you the mechanics of the human body and why you should be in a certain position for an exercise. This knowledge will help prevent future injuries.
- Works through a natural range of motion – Machines restrict your range of motion through a predetermined plane of movement. Unfortunately, everybody is different and there is no one size fits all range of motion. Machines try to mitigate this factor by having certain adjustable heights and pads, but there is no comparison to the free range of movement that free weights provide.
- Weight increments are smaller – While sometimes machines jump in 5 pound increments, most of the time the jump in weight from one to the next is 10, 15, or even more pounds. You can sometimes find a specially designed small weight that you can add to the machine for smaller resistance jumps, but nothing can compare to the small incremental jumps free weights provide. You can purchase 1 pound plates for a very small weight jump.
- No false sense of strength – Machines provide you will many leverage advantages, and because of this, you get a false sense of strength. Adding 100 pounds to a machine is much less resistance than adding 100 pounds to an olympic bar. Pulleys and rails change the actual resistance of the exercise. Unfortunately, you aren’t quite as strong as you think.
- Increased use of stabilizer muscles – A great benefit that free weights provide over machines is the use of stabilizer muscles. When you do a free weight exercise, you activate dozens of small stabilizer muscles that help push the weight through the entire range of motion. Hold a bar over your head and you notice all the muscles that are activated to keep the weight from moving forwards and back, or side to side. You don’t get this effect with machines, as the weight is being stabilized by the machine.
- Cheaper – If you have a gym membership, this point might be moot. However, if you buy your own equipment, it would cost you several times the amount necessary to equip your home with a gym, not to mention much more space is needed for machine equipment. Machines focus on a single muscle group, and you would need several machines to work your entire body. Compare that to free weights where all you really need is a power rack, an adjustable bench, a bar and some weights, and you begin to see the monetary savings.
- Reduced risk of injury – Many people believe that machines reduce the risk of injury. I disagree. I’ve seen more people performing bad form on machines than with free weights. Whether they don’t have the machine adjusted right, or they are violently swinging through the motions, they are increasing their risk for injury as compared to someone who is using proper free weight form.
- Improved balance – Stand in the squat position with a bar on your back. Now sit down in the leg press machine. Notice any difference? The free weight squat is going to force you to stay balanced throughout the entire range of motion. Compare that to the leg press where all you have to do is press the weight against a rail. Free weights activate those stabilizer muscles and improve your balance.
- Increased motor neuron recruitment – Because free weights activate more muscle fibers as a result of needing the additional stabilizer muscles, you’re able to increase motor neuron recruitment for each exercise. Doing so will encourage much more uniform strength and muscle gains across the board.
As you can see, the benefits of free weights over machines are numerous. You will always hear arguments for instances when machines are more beneficial, but I stand by the belief that whatever machines can do, 9 times out of 10 free weights can do better.