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So, you're starting to get into your strength training, but you're finding yourself questioning whether your current way of training is the most effective method towards build a stronger, better functioning body.
You see some people using a broad variety of machines & free weights, and others who swear by free weight exercises.
The reality is that both come with their own set of benefits & drawbacks - in this article I'm going to outline the most relevant ones before providing my verdict on how the majority of people ought to structure their movement practice.
Free weights hold the value of versatility. Not only can you do a variety of different movements with free weights, but you can adjust the how you perform those movements to better suit you (your anatomy & goals).
On top of this, free weights require greater use of stabiliser muscles - small muscles that, you guessed it, stabilise joints during movements. The demands placed on the body by free weight exercises help develop co-ordination, balance, & proprioception along with other important motor skills.
Free weight exercises therefore tend to have a more direct carry-over to movement in 'real life' (outside of the gym). This is one of the main reasons why you'll typically see athletes lean more towards free weights over machines in their training (not to suggest there isn't a place for machine-based exercise in an athletes training program).
That said, the lack of external stability when using free weights can make exercises:
▫️More fatiguing for your central nervous system
▫️Challenging to perform with good technique
▫️More difficult to focus on target muscles
To summarise, free weights tend to have a steeper initial learning curve, involve greater juggle (more things to think about than just pushing or pulling), & create greater fatigue.
Resultantly, you'll likely struggle to perform a movement pattern with as much load as you would when using a machine with a fixed path-of-motion.
Moving on to machines.
Unlike most free-weight exercises, machines provide stability in abundance (via seats, back rests, pads, etc). Stability makes it easier to maintain good form, while reducing the involvement of other muscles & joints that we aren't aiming to work.
This in turn can mean that performing exercises is more straightforward, injury risk is reduced, & the muscles targeted experience greater tension (which, in short, leads to greater gains!).
Another perk of machines is their ability to provide a challenge that matches up nicely with the strength profile of the working muscles (which is potentially more optimal for muscle growth).
I know what you're thinking - "what on earth is a strength profile?!".
The strength profile can be defined as the force-producing capability of a muscle across varying lengths or ranges.
All muscles are able to produce their maximal amount of force when at resting "mid-range". If the muscle is shortened or lengthened (stretched) from it's mid-range, it's ability to produce force is reduced.
Some machines (not all) are designed with this in mind - they ensure that the challenge provided by the machine aligns with the strength profile of the target muscle group(s).
Take a leg extension for example. During this exercise the quads go from a mid-range with the knee flexed, to a shortened-range with the knee extended. As outlined earlier, the quads aren't capable of producing as much force in their shortened range as they are in their mid-range. A leg extension could be designed to provide a drop-off in challenge as the trainee extends their knee - meaning that the demand placed on the quads remains equal throughout all parts of the excursion.
This isn't essential for all trainee's, but holds value for those looking to train for optimal muscle growth.
Here's My Verdict
The reality is that there is no straight answer to "What's Best?", other than "it depends".
What’s best for you comes down to your individual goals & needs, and of course, what you enjoy!
As I mentioned earlier, there will be circumstances whereby one may be a better fit than another (e.g. if you're an athlete then machines are unlikely to feature as heavily as they would for a bodybuilder).
But, if you’re simply trying to build a stronger body (that functions well & feels good), there's no reason why you can't make use of both free weights & machines in your training!
More broadly speaking, my advice would be to keep your movement practice as varied as you can. Practice different movement patterns, sports, & activities that test your body in a wide-variety of ways. Keep your body guessing & ensure that it's prepared for all & any eventuality that you may face!
Christian Lawal Personal Training.
Personal training in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge & Sevenoaks.