Machines vs Free Weight

By, Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS

Pay a visit to any gym in town – what do you look for? What criteria do you use to value the worth of that establishment? If you are like most people, the amount of resistance training machines (RTM) on the exercise floor is the main indicator of a gym’s potential for effectiveness. The more RM, “the more better”. Well, perhaps after reading this article you will have a better understanding of what effective is.

Ever since the recording of history, man has been obsessed with strength and the physique that accompanied it. Ancient Egyptian and Chinese art show men lifting heavy stones. Follow history to the modern era and you will surely remember Charles Atlas and the workouts available through gum wrappers! Even today, we still have the “Strongest Man Competition”. If one looks at the hieroglyphics, the Atlas workouts, or sees a “Strong Man” competition, several commonalties show up. None require the support of RM, all use free weight modalities, and all involve lifts or events that are dynamic, “ground based” and use multiple joints.

The advent and evolution of RTM training can be traced back to early 1900 hundreds. The initial move away from “vertical” free weight (FW) started with the use of pulleys that allowed for horizontal resistance. Various springs, wires, cables and rubber items were constructed to offer resistance outside of gravity’s influence. Post World War II, various contraptions such as vibrating belts and electric fat rollers started popping up. At about the same time, “weight-stack” lever and pulley systems (Universal) became popular. In the 1970s Nautilus came out with the “cam system” popularized by Arthur Jones. It was during this time that RTM manufactures launched aggressive marketing campaigns. Some campaigns depicted FW training as somewhat dangerous and all touted RTM as the best new way of training. The 1980s continued to see the popularity of RTM grow. The 1990s continued to see strong sales in RTM. This could be explained by several factors: increasing number of people exercising; number of facilities; and of course, “the never ending quest to do things faster and easier.” However, Things are staring to change.

Currently, the strength and conditioning industry is experiencing a revolution in methodology; a resurgence of old fashion FW training. The leaders in the field of performance enhancement are promoting functional training (FT) as a way to look better, feel better and function better. FT deals very effectively with the operational environment we deal with everyday. It addresses and simultaneously trains multiple planes of motions, teaches how to deal with gravity in functional positions, and how to manipulate physical elements, such as inertia, momentum and impulse. FT does all of this in a very entertaining and interesting way, and due to its strong neurological component, it sometimes provides result within minutes! This is a very hard combination for any training methodology to live up to or compete with. Why the move away from traditional RTM, are they not effective? No, RTM can be effective for some applications – it’s just that most of what can be done with RTM can also be done with FW training can usually do it better! RM may be safer in an unsupervised environment where novices may be training without professional guidance. But, unsupervised training should not be occurring anyway, it is a danger to the trainee and a liability to any establishment. With the use of a selector pin, RM allow you to change resistance quickly, permitting ease of use in circuit training or when working in large groups of individuals. A little experience and proper program design can easily take care of this dilemma. RM are also effective for isolating muscle involvement. However, no muscle ever works isolated in real life – why train that way? If you work a weak muscle as part of a chain, it will eventually strengthen to its balanced strength ratio to the other muscles of that chain! Lastly, the cost – No contest! FW by a long shot!As you can see, all of the “advantages” of RM are not exactly advantageous. If you are interested in just your everyday fitness and health program, then RM may offer you some noticeable conditioning gains. However, it’s been my experience that everyone who trains wants more than average results. Most people who take the time to train want “optimum results”, that’s why they train to begin with! For the most out of your training, FW training is definitely the way to go. Why? We live in a free weight environment (gravity dominated). FW training addresses this concept perfectly. Since it does not stabilize your body for you, training with FW forces teaches you proper lifting and stabilization mechanics. This utilizes more muscle groups, creates a larger training effect and also reduces the likelihood of an injury due to poor lifting technique or muscular imbalance. Training with other FW implements (e.g. medicine balls, Stability Balls, weighted vests, etc.), allows an individual to functionally strengthen “activity specific” movements. These exercises strengthen a particular movement as it occurs in “real life”. The use of FW equipment allows for throwing or releasing. This is very important in “population appropriate” power development. Finally, the variety of FW equipment, and its wide application capabilities, allows an individual to stay challenged and motivated.

RM have their place in the fitness field. They can be effective if you are dealing with a person who has some neurological condition that renders a FW exercise dangerous. I also train my clients on RM to teach them how to use different gym equipment while they travel. But, even research shows that while both RM and FW training are effective for conditioning, FW training is superior for improved mass, strength and power. I believe the overuse of RM is just another indicator of our “make everything easy for me – give me the gadget” society. We want to drop fat without dieting 24/7 – give me a pill! We want to get muscular while we watch TV – strap me to a machine! We want to burn calories or make our hearts stronger while reading the morning paper – sit me on the recumbent bike! Then, we all complain when the results we want seem to always escape us. Well, anyone who has lost 20 lbs. and gone from a sickly state to optimal physical condition can attest to the fact that they did not achieve it by eating, watching TV and reading the morning paper. If all of the gadgets and pills worked, everyone would be fit and healthy. Use RM sparingly and don’t be afraid to try some new training methods (e.g. medicine balls, balancing, Stability ball, SAQ drills, etc), it may be the answer to your needs. If you want optimum performance enhancement, get under some FW, work hard and forget about the “deals” – in optimum performance there are none!


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *