Most people go to the gym for two things: either build muscle or lose fat. Regardless of the goal, a proper training routine is essential for success. Just as important is the choice of equipment. So which is better: free weights or exercise machines?
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- Engages more of the stabiliser muscles
- Greater carryover to general/athletic activities
- Higher metabolic demand
- Less neurally demanding
- Better at isolating weaker/lagging muscles
- Lower risk of injury
- Higher technical element
- Greater risk of injury
- Not as “functional“
The devil is in the details
When it comes to fitness, both free weights and exercise machines can be used to burn fat and build muscle effectively. Free weights might be more more efficient at creating a full-body workout, but the same can be achieved with machines when employed in a circuit training format.
A common mistake people make when navigating the whole free weights-vs-machines dilemma is thinking that they are mutually exclusive. A well-structured training programme can include both, either on the same day or during different sessions for similar body parts. When combining free weights with machine work, super-sets tend to work well in terms of fatiguing the muscle. Of course, the greater workload density also results in greater metabolic stress, which can lead to favourable adaptations.
How to make the most of both
Now that we’ve established that having both free weights and machines in your training toolbox can be more effective than just sticking to one, how exactly do we leverage on the benefits of both? One important thing to keep in mind when it comes to training (or anything in life for that matter) is to leave your ego at the door. Blindly chasing numbers won’t do you much good in the long run and you run the risk of building some really bad movement habits or incurring injuries along the way.
There is a time and place to focus on lifting the most amount of weight possible, but the bulk of your training should be dedicated to feeling the muscle and loading the movement. This means slowing things down a little and incorporating pauses throughout the movement. Things like tempo and eccentric training work very well.
Ryan, head coach at Orange Theory Fitness, tells us, “Even without your gym equipment, you can put in amazing work with your body weight. Pushups, pull-ups, inverted presses, squats and lunges can give you a great workout even at home or when you’re travelling. Consistency is the key to progress.”
Today’s functional training boom may eschew the leg extension for the squat, but that doesn’t mean that fitness machines are obsolete. There is a fitness-related saying that goes, “the one thing that’s guaranteed to work is the thing that you’re not currently doing.” Whether your preferences lie with exercise machines or free weights, it sure wouldn’t hurt to feature both in your regimen.