Fitness Weightlifting

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Do you get a better workout in the gym by using free weights or machines?

July 11, 2017

Free weights vs. machines: Which provides a better workout?

It’s one of the most heated debates in the fitness community: Do you get a better workout in the gym by using free weights or machines? Let’s try to solve this question once and for all and clear up any misconceptions that have complicated the issue.

How free weights and machines work your muscles

Without building up any kind of suspense, the very easy answer to this question is that free weights generally provide a more complete workout for the body. There are two big reasons for that: support and stabilization. Even if a given exercise is targeted to a particular muscle group, you will usually “ involve a large portion of the body’s musculature either directly or for support and stabilization.

Machines, on the other hand, do a lot of the support and stabilization work for you. They let you focus on a very specific movement and muscle group, but studies show that this is likely to put less stress on your muscles and therefore limit strength building. Free weights also allow a much broader range of motion that better simulates real-world lifting and activity.

Different benefits for different people

Here is where things take a turn. While these general facts about free weight lifting are true, they are not without their disadvantages. Above all, free weights can be dangerous and they take a great deal of practice to master. Not everyone walks into the gym with the skills and technique of a professional bodybuilder.

It is very easy to make a mistake in technique or simply the amount of weight you to decide to lift. An exercise with poor form and bad technique is generally more harmful than it is helpful. You may be moving the weight, but you’re probably failing to target the muscle group you wanted to in the first place, and you could even hurt yourself.

For the most part, machines make technique less of a concern. They are designed to let you isolate and target improvement for a very specific muscle group. They also let you adjust resistance to your needs much more easily than free weights. Above all, they are much less likely to cause serious injury if you are inexperienced.

Do you have to choose one or the other?

Machines and free weights generally both play a role in an ideal workout routine. Free weights can play an important role in overall muscle-building and machines are a great way to isolate and hone the work you are doing in particular muscle groups. Each mode is better at different things and there are plenty of machine-based exercises that can have a considerable effect.

Final answer: It depends

The simple truth is that no workout is one-size-fits-all. The best thing to do is to get into the gym and find out what works best for you. Better yet — spend some time with a personal trainer if you can manage it and let them help you build a safe, effective routine perfectly suited to your needs.

Every time you walk into the gym, the goal should always be to get more comfortable with your options, and to understand the purpose behind the exercise you are doing, and the proper form to support it. No amount of reading can compare to the learning and growing that will happen naturally through experience. But through it all, never forget the cardinal rule — to know your limits and always stay safe.

Did you know?

Independence Blue Cross members get up to $150 back on their fitness center fees. Members also enjoy discounts at thousands of gyms in the Globalfit network, in addition to home exercise equipment from leading manufacturers of personal fitness products.