Why Free Weights Are More Effective Than Machines

As a Personal Trainer, I am often asked for my opinion regarding the use of weight machines versus the use of free weights for strength training. While weight machines can be beneficial in specific situations, for example, to isolate muscle movement following an injury, in general I find free weights to be much more valuable tools.

Use of free weights allows for motion that more closely matches “real life,” helps prevent injury by engaging stabilizer muscles while training, boosts balance and coordination, stabilizes joints, and improves the body’s ability to burn fat.

“But, machine weights feel safer than free weights!”

While learning to handle free weights may take some practice, I believe that using free weights is actually safer in most cases because movements with free weights more closely replicate “real life” situations. Those training with free weights are better prepared for how they will actually need to engage their muscles when completing daily tasks because they have developed the central nervous system’s ability to recruit the proper muscles for the activity.

As an example, picking up a medicine ball or dumb bell from the floor is a similar movement to picking up an infant from the floor, or picking up a tool in the garage. Those who train with free weights can handle these daily life tasks without having to think about their body position, what the proper stance should be, engaging their core muscles, recruiting their leg muscles, when to inhale/exhale, and how to stand up again without compromising the integrity of the ankle, knee, hip, low back, etc. These people are able to perform the motion without any concern because they have trained their body already.

In Boyd Epley’s, The Path to Athletic Power, he recalls that,

The last athlete I can think of who trained on machines only was Kelvin Clark in 1973. He told me, ‘I was bench pressing 330 pounds until I came to Nebraska and used free weights. I was shocked I could bench only 260 pounds.

The reason Kelvin experienced this difference in performance using machines and free weights is because, using the machines he was not recruiting his stabilizer muscles. Using free weights, individuals are not just using the triceps and deltoids but also recruiting the core, hips, and legs muscles. Overestimating true strength, like Kelvin did, can result in what would otherwise be preventable injuries.

Free Weights: Benefits balance and coordination.

While using free weights, the brain is constantly working to ensure the body’s safety. To do this, the brain will enhance its proprioception, which is the ability to know where the body is in space. When this happens, the body will recruit more muscles effectively and efficiently to ensure safety through balance and coordination.

As we age, many of us become concerned about the risk of falls and rightfully so. According to the CDC,

Each year, one in every three adults age 65 and older falls. Falls can lead to moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures and head traumas, and can even increase the risk of early death. Fortunately, falls are a public health problem that is largely preventable.

Using free weights can significantly improve balance and coordination thus reducing the risk of such falls.

Joint Stabilization: Another benefit of free weight training.

By training the body in a standing upright position, the ankles, knees, hips, and spine will become more stable. Imagine walking in a park and stepping into an unseen hole. Those with weak joint stabilization roll the ankle and become injured. Those with strong joint stabilization are able to correct more readily and avoid the injury.

The Smith Machine

Even the Smith Machine, a very popular weight lifting device, is something I don’t generally recommend using. When doing a free weighted squat, if a pen was at the end of the barbell and you did a squat, it would draw a line nearly perpendicular to the ground. The line would actually deviate 1/8 inch to 1/4 of an inch based on the person’s flexibility and bone structure.

Using the Smith Machine, the minor deviations are not allowed due to the steel rails the barbell is attached to. So those using the machine are not able to do a squat that is natural to their body’s structure and flexibility. Instead their body is forced to compensate in a way they couldn’t replicate in a situation outside of the gym, increasing their risk for injury.

Losing Body Fat

In addition to building strength, many people who are weight training are also trying to lose body fat. Every day an individual uses free weights they are recruiting more muscles fibers with every repetition, every set, and every workout station than they would be with weight machines. This elevates the resting metabolic rate (RMR) which allows the body to burn fat more effectively. As such, free weight training is an important component of effective weight loss efforts.

As a passionate Personal Trainer, I am always focused on maximizing the overall health and wellbeing of my clients, thus, I routinely use free weights in their training. Typically after a couple of sessions with any skeptical clients, they thank me for teaching them how to use free weights because they see what a difference it has made in their lives.

If you would like to learn more about using free weights and taking advantage of all the benefits I’ve outlined above, feel free to contact me at szahn@lifetimefitness.com

written by Steven Zahn