Free weights and machines, which is better?
Sometimes people use a thing to lift a weight. That thing is a machine if it includes: a wedge, a lever, an inclined plane, a wheel & axle, a screw, a pulley, a gear, a hydrostatic component, a hydraulic component, springs, gear differentials, linkages, couplings, cams, clutches, or an engine. The strength area in a fully equipped gym will include a dozen or more different machines. The area will also include barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells—collectively called free weights. Free weights and machines can make you stronger.
Machines are better than free weights because machines are the simplest way to load anatomical movements with a large range of weights that are moved against the force of gravity.
Sometimes, machines are the only way to do that.
Any anatomical movement that can be done with free weights can also be done with machines, but not vice versa.
Here are some popular examples:
- Seated horizontal adduction of the humerus with elbow extension—a.k.a. the chest press
- Seated adduction of the humerus with elbow flexion—a.k.a. the pulldown
- Seated shoulder extension with elbow flexion—a.k.a. the row
- Seated knee flexion while upright—a.k.a. leg curl
- Seated hip adduction—a.k.a the hip ad-ab machine
- Seated hip abduction—a.k.a the hip ad-ab machine
The barbell flat bench press and the barbell/dumbbell row are two common free weight exercises. Respectively, they are similar to the first and third movements.
But without a machine, you can’t do those exercises with a large range of loads while seated. Forces act differently on the body when it’s seated, as opposed to when it’s lying supine. The anatomical movement while seated, therefore, is challenged differently than it is challenged when lying supine.
Comprehensive strength training programs will include free weights and machines. The latter because they can place the exerciser in positions that would be inaccessible without them.
Free weights and machines: different kinetics and kinematics
Exercisers do work on a machine. Then the machine does work on a weight. The exerciser and the machine are joined in a system. The exerciser-machine system will involve kinetics (forces) and kinematics (positions) particular to those machines. Doing some particular anatomical movement without machines will not feel the same or look the same as doing the same anatomical movement with a machine.
The barbell bench press, a free weight exercise, will look and feel different than the Cybex Chest Press, despite the fact that they use the same anatomical movements to lift a weight: horizontal adduction of the humerus with elbow extension. Lifting an 80-pound barbell will not feel the same as lifting the machine’s 80-pound weight stack. The body’s position on the bench will be very different from the body’s position in the machine.
We understand what can be done with free weights. Countless books, videos, presentations, and clinics have collectively expounded on free weight exercises. Future innovations in strength training will happen when new machines are created.
Cybex makes some of the best machines on earth. That’s why we feature them at The Training Station Gym. (We also have a world-class collection of free weights!)