Free Weights Versus Machine Weights

As a Physio I’m often asked which one is better: free weights or machine weights?

The answer invariably depends on your fitness goals and your level of gym experience. However, with a few caveats, I would say that free weights trumps machine weights overall. Here’s why.

For the majority of people, the three main advantages of free weights are:

  1. Free weights ensure you use both sides of your body evenly. The majority of right-handed people tend to be stronger on their dominant side. So, if you’re doing a dumbbell press with free weights in each hand, you can’t compensate for your slightly weaker side the way you can with machine weights. You wont be able to life heavier weights until your left can adequately get through the reps and sets. This encourages a more symmetrical physique and ensures that you don’t end up lopsided.
  2. Free weights force your muscles and joints to stabilise more because they are not in a preset range of motion like on a machine. Instead you have to carve out the movement path you take yourself, which means it takes more co-ordination and you must stabilise harder through your joints whilst you do so. Stabilising through your joins helps prevent injury.
  3.  Functional compound movements are easier to do with free weights such as the bench, squat, pull-ups and dead lifts. Compound movements are more transferable to everyday activities than the isolated movements you would do using machine weights. For example, moving a couch is a similar action to a dead lift. Machine training can’t really replicate these functional movement patterns as well.

This isn’t to say that machine weights are all bad. In fact machines can have certain advantages. For example:

  1. Machine weights are great for new gym-goers without much experience with exercise and weights. They can jump on a machine and learn a few common movement patterns that they can later transfer to free weights without worrying as much about injury.
  2. If you don’t have a gym buddy or spotting partner it’s nice to have the comfort of the machine to rely on. If you drop the machine weight it may clang loudly but there’s safeguards built in so there’s less risk of damaging your muscles and joints.
  3. Machines can isolate muscle groups easily and keep the resistance fairly constant throughout the movement. This is great if you’re working specifically on a trouble spot.

This should give you a it of an idea about which kind of weight is better for different people. If you’re making the switch from machine weights to free weights – or even taking on weights for the first time – don’t be afraid to ask your Physio at Bend + Mend in Sydney’s CBD to run you through the safest way to tackle weights and get the most out of your resistance training.

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