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Free Weights Vs. Machines: The Pros and Cons
By Jean Lam

Which is better for your body building routine-free weights or machines? Exercise machines have been engineered to target specific muscles with the utmost precision-but people have been using some version of free weights to get fit for thousands of years. In a head-to-head contest, which training method will give you a better workout?

The reality is that both free weights and machines have benefits and drawbacks, and both have a place in a well-rounded body building routine. Here's an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Free Weights: The Benefits

Free weights build mass more effectively. Free weights don't just work the muscle you're targeting. They require balance and recruit multiple muscle groups in order to lift the weight. When you perform a squat with free weights, you're not just using your leg muscles-you're using the muscles in your thighs, butt, back, abs, and arms to perform the exercise. Targeting multiple muscle groups will help you build sheer mass more quickly than using machines.

Free weights are more versatile. They allow a wider range of motion than machines, which lock you into a single position. You can perform far more types of exercises with a single set of barbells than you can with the average exercise machine, even if the machine is designed to be versatile. Free weights allow for more variation of movement, and they require greater coordination of muscle groups with each exercise.

Free weights are more accessible. Every gym has a set of free weights, but not every gym is fitted out with the latest, most state-of-the-art exercise machines. If you're looking to build a home gym, you'll be able to afford free weights much more easily than a single home gym machine. Free weights are easy to find and easy to buy.

The Dangers of Free Weights

It's easy to do it wrong. Free weights allow any range of motion your body can perform-which can be a benefit if you're an experienced body builder. If you're not, however, it's easy to use them with less-than-perfect form. In the best case, you might not be getting the most out of each rep you perform. In the worst case, you could put yourself at risk for injury. In general, it's usually best to hire a trainer to get you started in the right form before you get stuck in bad habits.

Free weights can be dangerous. Try to lift more than you should with free weights, and you could get in over your head. There's always a risk that you could get stuck under that weight-and if you drop it, you could face serious injury. Those using heavy weights are generally advised to work with a spotter, especially for exercises such as squats or bench presses.

Machines: The Benefits

Machines are safer. Machines lock you into controlled, precise movements that isolate specific muscle groups. They also typically don't require much balance. While this limits the results you get from machines, it also protects you from injury. Machines are generally recommended for people who are recovering from injuries, as well as pregnant women, because they allow lifters to target healthy muscle groups while protecting more sensitive areas of the body.

It's easy to have perfect form with a machine. With a machine, it's tough to break form. Most machines include diagrams that illustrate the correct form for each exercise, and the machine itself often locks your body into position. With free weights, any imaginable movement is possible-which allows for plenty of mistakes. With machines, you're often locked into the best position for the exercise. If you don't have a trainer to guide you, it may be better to start with machines.

You don't need a spotter. If you're lifting heavy free weights, you'd better have a spotter-or you could risk serious injury if you drop your weight. With machines, it's unlikely that you'll injure yourself this way, no matter how much weight you lift. If you want to pump heavy iron and you don't have a partner, machines can allow you to work solo without risking your safety.

The Drawbacks of Machines

Machines don't use all your muscle groups. This means you won't get as much out of each exercise you perform with a machine. With free weights, you're never using just one muscle group-every exercise you perform requires full body participation. This stimulates your nervous system to a greater extent, encouraging your body to build more muscle. With exercise machines, you don't get the same amount of stimulation-and you won't see results as quickly, especially if you're in the beginning stages of your body building routine and you're looking to build muscle mass.

Machines don't fit every body. Today, most machines are adjustable to a certain extent. But even so, most machines aren't ideal for every body type. If you're very short or very tall, you could find that exercise machines are a terrible fit for your body-and they don't adjust enough to accommodate you. If the machines don't fit, they won't be able to lock you into the best form for the exercise. At best, you won't get good results from using the machines. At worst, you could risk injury.

Both machines and free weights have their pros and cons. Which is right for you depends on your fitness goals, your body type, and your health. If you want to build mass efficiently or your body doesn't fit most machines, free weights are probably a better choice for you. If you're looking to isolate a certain muscle group, you're at added risk of injury because of your physical condition, or you don't have a trainer or spotter to support you, machines may be better. However, both can be incorporated efficiently for a healthy workout-so while you might prefer one method over the other, in most cases you can use both.

About the author

Jean Lam is the webmaster of Body Building Resource which provides articles on weight training, nutrition and fitness, body building book and DVDs.


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