It is a debate that is as old as time, well not really that old but it is pretty old. Which is better machines or free weights? For a long time I thought that only free weights were the way to go because after all they do not test at the combines with machine weights nor do weight lifting competitions use machine weights. But the more research I did the more I realized that I was missing out on the opportunity to make gains by neglecting machine weights. Here is what I found were the benefits of using free weights and machine weights from self-experimentation and research:
Dumbbells and barbells have been around longer than machine weights have. When using free weights you are forced to balance the weight as you lift it up and down. Machine weights have cables that take away the need for you to balance the weights. By balancing the weight you are engaging stabilizing muscles that otherwise would not be worked using a machine. For example when you are doing squats you are primarily using your legs, however your lower back is also being worked in order to keep your body balanced. When doing leg press with a machine you do not engage your back as you would when doing squats. Improving these stabilizing muscles is an integral part to achieving gains. Free weights are a true test of strength as they better simulate real life applications. This is why if you are training to get more athletic it is better to use free weight. In a game you will be required to use those stabilizing muscles that would otherwise go unworked using machines. Free weights will also allow you to get creative with your workouts so that your muscles can be worked in ways that they have not been worked before and thus allow you to develop your muscles more. Since free weights require you to balance the weights you will not be able to lift as much. Your muscles will be partially concerned with stabilizing the weight while lifting it up. Also free weight exercises can cause injury if proper form is not used. Thus it is vitally important that proper form is used and that the weight you are using is not so much that it forces you to use poor form.
Best Free weight exercises
Chest: Dumbbell Bench press (flat, incline, decline)
Back: Single arm dumbbell rows, Deadlifts and back flies
Shoulders: Seated military press, lateral raises and dumbbell shrugs
Biceps: Dumbbell curls, hammer curls, and reverse curls
Triceps: Close grip bench press, skull crushers and overhead triceps extension
Legs: Squats (front and back), lunges, and straight leg deadlifts
Machine weights are great for beginner weight lifters. The cables that lift the weights do not require the lifter to balance the weight. This will allow the lifter to focus and develop the desired muscle that they want to work so that they can eventually move to work it using free weights. Machine weight also concentrates the area that you want to work. This means that it works the muscle that you want more directly. If you want to work your biceps using machines then the exercise you are doing will force you to solely lift the weight using your biceps. This is beneficial as it develops the muscle more. The cables that machine weights use allow you to lift more weight. This is due to the fact that you will not have to concentrate on stabilizing the weight and will allow you to focus your muscles on lifting the weight. So the combination of increased weight and the concentrated area that is being worked allow you to develop the muscle you are working more. Another benefit of machine weights is that it provides resistance in ways that free weights cannot. Free weights provide resistance in the same direction that gravity is working. Thus when you are doing exercises that involve moving the weight in a curved motion such as in curls, or chest flies. With machine weights the pressure is applied evenly throughout the repetition. Thus allowing you to work muscles more that would normally not be worked as much in that particular exercise. Try it! Instead of doing flies with free weights bring the bench to the cables and do incline flies with them and you will notice that the pressure from the cables are more evenly applied throughout the repetition. Lastly when using machines it is easier to do drop sets as the hook just needs to be moved as opposed to having to go get additional weights like you would have to do with free weights.
Best Machine exercises
Chest: Cable flies, and pec deck flies
Back: Reverse cable flies, lat pull-downs,
Shoulders: one-armed lateral lifts, and machine shoulder press
Biceps: Machine concentrated curls, and rope cable curls
Triceps: Cable push downs (regular and reverse grips) and cable triceps extensions
Legs: Leg curls, hamstring curls and calf extensions
Overall machines weights have more upside to them than free weights. However this does not mean that free weight should be omitted from your workouts as free weight exercises involve muscles that will not be worked when using machines. It is beneficial to incorporate machines into your workout with free weights as only using one or the other will result in certain benefits to be neglected. Whichever one you use more depends on how long you have been lifting as well as why you are lifting. No matter which one you use ensure that once in a while you change up your routine to avoid plateauing. So whether you are using machines or free weights, it is time to log off that computer and get lifting!