Nutrition & Health OnLine Magazine
Davey Dunn
Which training apparatus produces the greatest results: Machines or Free Weights? That is a question that has received quite a bit of debate for the last three decades. In order to get the most from your training it is important that you understand the benefits as well as the disadvantages of each mode of training.
In the 60's and 70's Arthur Jones and Nautilus sought to convince the World that variable resistance machines were the best for producing size and strength gains. Their theory was that because a person is stronger at different points in an exercise a machine that makes the resistance heavier at those points would yield far superior results. Unfortunately, this theory only addressed part of the many forces at work during a free weight lift and the last twenty years have shown that variable resistance machines are actually inferior to free weights for producing size and strength gains.
Despite all that has been learned, there are still plenty of machines around and a corresponding number of sales people each claiming that their machine is the ultimate way to train. In addition to variable resistance machines (Nautilus) there are also non-variable resistance machines (Universal), isokinetic devices (Biodex), and elastic spring and band machines (Soloflex). Each has proven inferior to free weights for producing strength and power gains but all have positive attributes that make them an acceptable way to train under certain circumstances. Probably the single biggest advantage that all machines have when compared to free weights is ease of use. However, this advantage is fairly minimal in most training situations and it is therefore questionable whether the added convenience is worth the decrease in training effect. Figure 1 compares different training modes and the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
There are a number of reasons why free weights produce superior results. Large multi-joint movements like squats that help produce the greatest power and strength gains are most easily trained with free weights. Another advantage is that there is greater muscle involvement when you use free weights because you have to actually handle the weight. Free weights also allow a much greater flexibility in the way you can train the same muscle groups which helps to maximize the gains from Variation of training (principle that was covered in Basics of Training: Part 4).
While machines are clearly inferior for producing results they are still very useful in certain situations. Machines are very useful when you need to isolate a small muscle group like when you are rehabbing an injury. Machines are also more user friendly for novice trainees who have yet to develop the advanced neuromuscular pathways that free weights demand. There are clearly many roles that machines can and do fulfill and so they should not be completely dismissed as a way to train.
In the final analysis only the individual trainee can determine which of the two training modes is best for them. This choice should be based upon what the most important outcome of training is expected to be. If the goal is to maximize strength and power then free weights would be most appropriate. If, on the other hand, the goal is to perform as many exercises in the shortest period of time then machines would be the best choice. Probably the smartest strategy is to use both modes of training in order to take advantage of the strengths of each. Just remember that free weights will always produce the superior results so the next time someone try's to "sell" you otherwise just smile and choose a barbell.


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