In the beginning were free weights. Then, in the 1970s, Arthur Jones invented the Nautilus weight machine. For years afterward, the question of which is better -- free weights or machine weights -- was hotly debated among strength coaches and bodybuilders. Today, most exercise experts agree that both free weights and machines have their place.
The stubborn few who still hold that one system is better than the other may be missing out on the best possible workout.
"Anyone who tells you that working out only with free weights or only with machines is better is lying," says Mark Wateska, director of athletic performance for Indiana University and former head strength and conditioning coach for Stanford University. "Today, most progressive coaches see a place for both."
Free weights usually take the form of barbells or dumbbells and can be moved freely through space. Machines guide weights on a preordained track. To the muscle, which can't see where the resistance is coming from, both types of equipment feel like work. When used correctly, both can produce a great result, says Wateska, who oversees strength and training regimens for 24 sports.
Still, each system has advantages and disadvantages. For beginners, machines are the best place to start, many experts say. They're safer and easier to learn to use properly. Free weights require more skill, particularly more coordination and balance.
Another advantage of machines is efficiency. If you have only 30 minutes to devote to your weight-training session, you might not want to waste minutes loading barbells and finding a spotter, Wateska says. Exercisers thinking of buying a set of dumbbells for their home gym should consider whether they have a spotter around in case they get pinned while doing a bench press.
One more plus for machines is their cam, a kidney-shaped wheel on most machines that allows them to adjust their resistance so lifters get a consistent load throughout the full range of motion. With free weights, lifters only work the load when pushing it against gravity. The cam device also eliminates the sticking point, the point in the range of motion in which lifters are at the greatest biomechanical disadvantage.
Free weights, on the other hand, are more versatile. A barbell can be used to do several exercises -- a bench press, a dead lift, a squat, to name a few -- while machines are generally limited to only one or two exercises.
The biggest argument in the weight room today centers on the isolation -- and the integration -- of muscles.
Because machines are so good at isolating muscles, they've been favored by those wanting deep definition. Now more people are seeking the integrated muscle strength that free weights build, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.
Exercises performed using weight machines tend to work isolated muscles and muscle groups. When people lift free weights, they tend to recruit more muscles to assist and stabilize. For example, lifting a barbell over the head requires help from the legs and hips; this isn't the case when using a machine. Thus, some say lifting free weights better mimics the strength requirements of real life.
"If there's a trend in weight lifting, it's toward a resurgence of people who want to lift so they can feel stronger for everyday tasks, and fewer who just have to have those great cuts," Bryant says.
However, muscle isolation makes machines a good choice when the goal is rehabilitating a muscle post-injury or strengthening a deficient muscle, he adds.
Machines can also help prevent reinjury. Wateska recommends, for example, that a player with a history of back injury do leg presses on a machine rather than squats with free weights. Machines are easier on the joints, Wateska says, which is why during the season he has his players do 75% of their strength training on machines and 25% on weights. Off season, he flips that ratio.
Working both into an exercise regimen can yield real gains. "Free weights are great because they bring in the assisted muscle groups, but certain exercises -- like a leg extension or curl, or a lat pull-down -- you can only do on machines; you can't replicate them with free weights," Wateska says.
"A good trainer is like a master craftsman who uses a variety of tools," adds Bryant. "Free weights and machines are just different tools. A good trainer will look at what the goals are and use the appropriate tools for the job."
Bridging the two weight-lifting worlds is a new generation of weight machines, which some call free-motion machines. These hybrid devices, already in many gyms, incorporate cables and pulleys so lifters get a greater variety of moves. The machines offer the freedom of free weights along with the safety, ease and consistent resistance of machines.
Whether they'll truly deliver the best of both worlds, only time and debate will tell.
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The path of best resistance