Fitness success: Free weights or weight machines?

McClatchy-TribuneJuly 2, 2013 

Here's a great question from one of my readers: Which is better, free weights or machines? Like with most things, which one is better for you depends on what you want to do.

Pros and cons

Learning curve: One thing that is great about machines is that all you need to do is sit down, look at the picture on the exercise machine and you have a pretty good idea of what to do on this machine. Additionally, the machine forces you to travel in a fixed path, so if you're supposed to push forward, but you mistakenly push the handle up, then the handle is still going to go forward.

The pros of the machine are also one of its biggest draw backs as well. First, most people that I work with already spend all day sitting down -- more sitting will not get them into better shape. When you sit down to do an upper body pushing exercise, the machine takes the place of your hips and core.

This is great if you are a bodybuilder and you really do need to isolate a given body part, but if you wanted to raise your metabolism as much as possible with the least number of exercises possible, then this is counterproductive as you are letting a huge part of your muscles (metabolism) relax.

Lastly, the fact that machines force you to travel in only one path will be great for some people, but bad for others because we're all built differently.

For example, if there is a leg machine that doesn't match the shape of your hips, then in order to do that exercise, some other joint is going to have to compensate for that mismatch. That joint is usually your lower back.

Safety: This one surprises most people, but according to International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association -- one of the leading fitness industry associations who keeps these kinds of records -- injuries are actually far more common with machines.

People get pinned and trapped, and they injure or lose digits by getting them caught in the workings of the machine.

These statistics even hold up with the new "work out until you puke" idea that's getting more popular as of late.

Results: If you really want compete as a bodybuilder (you wouldn't be reading this article), then you will need some machine training. It's very hard to be competitive and fill in the gaps in your physique without them.

However, if you are like most people, and you just want to be able to go to the beach and feel good in your swimwear, and you aren't going to dedicate your life to fitness, then free weights (as well as kettlebells and other similar tools) are far and away the best tools for you. Free weight (really "functional" training, but not the goofy stuff) allows you to get the most work done in the least amount of time. If you are standing or kneeling when you do your upper body pushing or pulling, then your legs, hips and core are still working. It's far more time efficient and far safer.

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