When you walk into any fitness gym, you will see a combination of both free weights and machines for various strength training exercises. Some people just use free weights (dumbbells) for their workout and some only use the weight machines. Many use a combination of both to optimize their workout. The debate has been around for decades - which is better for you?
No single piece of weight equipment is best for everyone. Both free weights and machine weights can help you increase your strength. The choice is based on your personal preference, your physical fitness level, your fitness goals and your access to equipment. I hope the following can help you determine what form of strength equipment is best for your needs.
ADVANTAGES: First, free weights are versatile and inexpensive. Free weights recruit more muscle groups and muscle fibers, and require more balance and coordination. Free weights also allow for more variations in range of motion and promote the joint stabilizer muscles. You have freedom to move around a variety of planes rather than being locked into a specific range of motion or pattern. This allows your body to do what it is naturally built to do - move. The term "functional fitness" means using key core and stabilization muscles to mimic what you do in real life like squatting, lifting things over your head and rotating the body. Proper technique is essential and it may take some careful instruction and training to learn safe and effective form. There is an endless variation of exercises you can do for each muscle group. It is also possible to train anywhere, even in your own home.
DISADVANTAGES: Among the disadvantages of using free weights are the possibility of putting your body in the wrong position while lifting and the risk of dropping the weights. Lack of knowledge on proper lifting technique can prevent many from learning good form with the dumbbells. There are so many exercises you can do, it's easy to get confused about where to start.
ADVANTAGES: Many people can learn to use weight machines quickly. They are generally safe when instruction is given by a fitness professional. Do NOT be afraid to ask for help when you are unsure how to use one. Use machines that are adjustable to your body dimensions and that move freely through their natural motion paths. You should be given your seat adjustment numbers so you can set up your machine to your body. Weight machines are supportive and often have padded seats and back rests. This can be ideal for people just starting out to work on form. Most machines have a picture demonstrating its use, making them easy to use on their own or with other machines to create your own circuit. Most of your body is stable and being held in place allowing you to isolate muscle groups more efficiently. It is easier to increase resistance on machines without risk of injury.
DISADVANTAGES: Among the disadvantages of training ONLY on weight machines is that most machines require you to use both arms or legs to move the weight, so if one side is stronger than the other, that side may do more work than the weaker side. As mentioned above, the weight machines isolate specific muscle groups, neglecting the important stabilizing muscle groups around the joints. The extra support the weight machine provides may embolden the user to lift too much weight, which can sometimes lead to injury. It is possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Also overloading the same muscles day after day can set you up for an overuse injury.
My recommendation is for you to choose a strength training system that you enjoy and that fits into your lifestyle. Aim to do a weight training exercise of all the major muscle groups at least two days a week. One day of rest between strength training sessions is recommended to give your muscles rest. An IDEAL training program may incorporate both free weights AND weight machines. You can get the most from muscle strength gains and joint stability using both systems. If you are rehabbing an injury, ALWAYS follow your doctor's and physical therapist's advice. Remember that proper form and technique is MORE important than the specific type of equipment and how much weight you can lift.
Workout safely and have FUN!
Shelley Rubinstein, Fitness Director