There are two types of ways to strength train in the gym. The first is safe, easy to set up, and self-explanatory. The second can lead to a greater chance of injury, can take a lot more time to set up, and could require assistance. The first will also get you about half the gains as the second (dependent on your goals of course). I’m talking about machine weight lifting (selectorized) vs. free weights (dumb bells, barbells, kettle bells, etc.), and unless you’re a body builder with a very specific target area or someone whose rehabbing an injury, it’s time to get off the machines.
Let’s start with a brief history of gyms and weight training. Physical training and competition has been around forever. The Greeks have used myths and stories to promote physical feats for as long as we can trace. They did invent the Olympics and Hercules (which is his Roman name but let’s not get caught up with ancient mythology) after all. The European countries have been weight lifting ever since, but it never really caught on in America until football made it popular in the 50’s. Jack Lalane was one of the first to introduce weight lifting machines during this time, but it wasn’t until the late 70’s when gyms really took off. Arnold Schwarzenegger can be blamed for the gym boom around this time. His movie “Pumping Iron” spearheaded the fitness movement. Now before I go on, realize how many people are trying to monetize health. Diet pills, fad exercise routines, flashy marketing, and even exercise equipment developers are constantly trying to figure out how to make money from Americans being out of shape. The early 80’s proved no different as the founder of Nautilus used gimmicky marketing and a very public argument with one the world’s best competitive squatters to gain the public’s eye. Ever since, weight lifting machines have been part of health clubs, serving only certain members with fringe benefits, but doing an extraordinary job at selling club memberships.
Now that we know why machines are in clubs, let’s discuss why we shouldn’t be using them over free weights. Free weights make our bodies much more functional. We should be training our bodies in the gym to make our lives outside of the gym easier. A dead lift is just picking up your baby out of its crib and a sit up is how you get out of bed every morning. Never in your life will you be seated, leaning over something using only your biceps to curl anything up to your chest. However you will squat down almost every single day. One of the worst features of weight machines are that they restrict motion (usually) to one plane at a time. Meaning it will never replicate bending and twisting at the same time, how most people hurt their lower backs. I discussed training in all our planes of motions in an earlier article about core training, and the same principles apply to other muscle groups besides the core.
Another strong reason to ditch the machines is the stabilization you will create in your core and other accessory muscles during weight lifting with free weights. Using dumb bells or barbells creates much greater muscular stimulation in non-primary movers during any given lift. For example, the main muscle used in a bench press is the pectoralis major. It’s also the main mover in the seated machine chest press. The difference is that in the bench press you have to make sure that the weight isn’t going to high over your face, or too low to your stomach. The shoulders have a lot to do with this and get a ton of work in a bench press, where they aren’t used much at all in a seated chest press. If calorie burn is your goal, then the more muscles you use per a particular exercise will help you burn more calories. If getting stronger is your goal, using the shoulder muscles to stabilize during a press will make your lifts much stronger.
The core is another big beneficiary to free weight training. You will almost never need to keep a tight core to complete a weights machine movement. But doing a lift with free weights and a loose core could compromise the entire motion. Someone who does a ton of hamstring curls on a machine will have strong hamstrings, but someone who does a ton of squats will have strong hamstrings, glutes, quads, abs, etc. Not only will free weights increase the strength of accessory muscles, they will increase the strength of the primary movers by recruiting more of the muscle to assist in the movement. Moving your muscles in a complete range of motion will use more of the muscle group and make you stronger.
Many people think that the risk of injury is higher from using free weight and this could be true if you aren’t performing the motions correctly (remember always ask a professional for help if you’re unsure of yourself). However the risk of injury from machine weights is equally as high. You can’t drop a stack of weight with a pin on your head like you can with a barbell, but the chance of injury still exists. If you are always focused on the same machines, developing particular muscles while ignoring others, your posture could be compromised which could lead to a multitude of musculo-skeletal problems.
So if you’re taking my advice and ditching the machines in favor of the strength building, athlete tested free weights, remember to do so safely. Any activity is better than none, and if you’re injured you won’t be doing much of anything. Talk to a professional trainer and get help analyzing your fitness goals and matching your exercises to those goals. If you’re using a machine to work on a particular body part, I guarantee there’s a free weights exercise to work the same muscles more effectively. Lastly, don’t be intimidated by the free weights. Everyone starts somewhere and even the guys who look like experts will give you credit for branching out and trying to make your gym routine better.