Searching for the best possible way to make gains in the gym can often be tricky or overwhelming. When you walk into the gym you can probably find a wide range of weight machines along with rows of dumbbells and squat racks. Many lifters incorporate a mix of free weights and machines when they are training. Free weight exercises require balance and they allow for movement in multiple planes while weight machines provide movement over a fixed range of motion. Some people swear by free weights alone and wouldn’t dare touch an exercise machine at the gym. Others solely use weight machines in their workouts. Which method of lifting is the best way to get in shape?
The benefits of using weight machines are that they are easy to use and figure out which is especially helpful for beginners. They are considered “safe” in the sense that you will not drop a heavy weight on yourself or someone. It is also easier to change resistance and loads on a machine. However, the movements one makes on a weight machine do not imitate natural movements we make every day. The exercises done on a weight machine usually do not target large muscle groups so isolated training is required.
The advantages of free weights are that they mimic real world movements and they target larger muscle groups, working more muscles in one exercise at a time. They require the use of stabilizing muscles so one must balance to perform the exercises. This coordination is part of the reason they are more natural movements that can help in day to day activities. Common disadvantages are that they are intimidating to beginners and some exercises require a spotter.
Lifters often quantify their strength by their one repetition maximum (1RM) or the heaviest weight a muscle/muscle group can successfully lift just one time with correct form. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared the force produced by muscles when squatting and bench pressing free weights or in a Smith machine. The results showed that participants had a greater 1RM in squatting with a Smith machine. Alternatively, participants had a greater 1RM when bench pressing using free weights. A previous study comparing free weight squats and bench press to machines showed greater 1RM in machines than in free weights, however the differences were not significant.
Example of a man squatting under a smith machine.
Another study done by Schick et. al. (2010) was conducted to compare the activation of muscles when bench pressing on Smith machine or a free weight bench press. The results found that there was significantly greater activation of the medial deltoid in the free weight bench press than in the Smith machine bench press. The instability caused by the free weight bench press requires more use of medial deltoid to both stabilize the body and produce the force necessary to lift the weight. The results did not show differences of activation in the larger chest muscles. The study used experienced and inexperienced lifters to determine whether one exercise was better beginners or not, but they did not find any significant differences between groups. It should be noted, however, that the study defined experienced as someone who consistently benched twice a week for 6 months. It may have been more helpful to use subjects with some more time and experience lifting.
The studies conducted do not necessarily favor any mode of exercise over another. I believe that more experiments should be performed to study the long-term effects of using free weights vs machines and whether one method may lead to faster results.
When deciding on whether to choose to lift using free weights or machines, it is best to determine what your goals are. If you want to be more efficient in the gym and use the most muscles in less exercises, free weights are your best bet. If you do want to isolate certain muscles and have more time to spare weight machines will work well. Many people incorporate both free weights and machines in their workout regime. I think it is most important to keep in mind that free weights are safe and activate more muscles when performed correctly. While weight machines may help in making you stronger, they avoid working those stabilizing muscles to help with balance. So, when your buddy needs help moving his couch up 3 floors to his apartment, you might wish you trained with free weights instead.