Smutty Fitness: Machines vs free weights

May 30, 2013 15:08:08 Posted at May 30, 2013 15:08:08
Hayley Posted by Hayley

Hi Hayley,

Following up on your last two posts, I was hoping you could elaborate a bit more on strength training. Specifically, what are your thoughts on using good ol' gym weight machines? I read (on the Internet... if that counts) that free weights or cross-fit is better, that machines train the wrong range of motions, etc. Is that true?

To give you some context: I'm turning 40 (soon), meaning by now I know that "if you don't use it, you'll loose it" is for real. Up until about a year ago, my primary exercise was running (at some point with coach, 5xweek), but lumbar pain and hip imbalance put an end to that. For cardio and endurance, I've switched to power walking/trail hiking (1-2/week), as well as cycling/mountain biking (1-2/week). For core and balance I've started ballet (1/week) and I'm planning to add Pilates (1/week) to sort out the residual lower back issues and for flexibility. That leaves strength training... considering that I do a lot of 'functional' exercise already, is it really that important that my strength training mimics 'real' movements as well? All I really want is to target and strengthen specific muscle groups, so that I get better at doing my other activities. Can I do that on weight machines? If so, is once or twice per week enough, in conjunction with the other activities I do?


It sounds like you are doing the right things to take care of your body and you have modified your fitness regime to make sure that you are still staying active but not continuing to hurt yourself. 

If you were not doing Ballet or Pilates, I would suggest that you add a free weight strength training program into your routine but since Pilates and Ballet will help address your muscular imbalances as well as give you the functional movement strength training you need, I say do whatever you enjoy doing as both methods do help improve your strength.

As for machines vs free weights, there are pros and cons to both methods. 

When you are using free weights, 9 times out of 10 you are strengthening more than just 1 muscle, which is how our bodies function. Never do we use our muscles independently and I am a big believer in strengthening our bodies in the same way we use our bodies day to day. Strength training machines allow you to lift more weight because they provide you with more support but it does not transfer as well to our everyday lives.

Free weights allow you to move freely through your body’s range of motion, and they address muscular imbalances.  Strength training machines, however, limit your range of motion and can promote muscular imbalances by allowing the stronger to do more of the “work” which will make the imbalances even worse. However, strength training machines are great for rehabilitation as you are moving your body in a controlled environment; just make sure the machine can adjust to your body’s range of motion and size.

Free weights are inexpensive and versatile and you can have them at home without taking up too much space. And with just a couple of different weights you can go through an entire series of movements, strengthening your body in a short amount of time. Because strength machines target only 1 or 2 muscles at a time, and take up a lot of space and can be costly, they are less convenient and require more time to achieve a full body workout.

If there’s a downside to free weights, it’s that they can be quite intimidating and require knowledge about the body and how it should move whereas strength machines are pretty self explanatory and less intimidating.

Do whatever works for you, as you will achieve strength improvements through both methods and as I have said many times, health and wellness is about finding what works for you. I suggest doing a combination of both. For example you can combine hamstring curls with a set of dead lifts or a leg extension with a set of squats or lunges. Do dumbbell flies after a seated chest press or add in stability ball back extensions after the lat pull down. Also, make sure you are lifting heavy enough weights that you experience fatigue, which means you are overloading your muscles enough to see a strength increase. This will occur sooner or with lighter weights when you are using free weights so make sure you adjust the load depending on what method you are using.

One day a week is better than zero but if you could do two, even three (for just 30 minutes) you will be better off.

Keep up the great work. It sounds like you have a very well rounded routine.

Attached -- John Krasinski heads to the gym.

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