Saturday, March 24, 2012

Machines vs. Free Weights

You have heard it before. Free weights are far superior to machines because they allow you to use your stabilizer muscles, improve your balance, and they are more hardcore too. But, does this mean that they are necessarily better than machines? In my opinion, they are not.

The Irreplaceables

Let me explain. There are certain free weight exercises that I believe cannot be replaced by machines to achieve the same result. This includes deadlifts and squats. There are no other excercises that will give you the same overall thickness as deadlifts. You can do lower back extensions or a lower back machine but they won't come anywhere close to thickneing up your back and improving your overall strength. Squats are a bit easier to replace than deadlifts since squat machines and leg presses do work your legs pretty well. However, nothing compares to free weight squats for overall leg development and strength.

The "Right" Machine

However, outside of these two exercises, I believe any exercise can be replaced by the right machine. What I mean by the right machine is a machine that you seem to connect well with. It might be tough to explain, but for whatever reason you just love the way a particular machine hits a particular muscle group. This is extremely individual. Everybody is built differently so there could be one machine that you love but your friend hates and a machine your friend loves but you hate.

If you find that machine that works well for you, then there is no reason not to do it. People get too caught up with doing certain free weight exercises because they are "supposed to." However, no matter how popular an exercise is and how important you think it might be for you to do, the fact remains that you just might not feel the exercise well. For example, if you continuously do barbell rows because you think you are supposed to but don't get a solid pump in your back when doing them, that exercise might not be right for you. There may be a t-bar row machine or cable row machine that you will feel much better in your back. If you find the right rowing machine, then that machine would be superior to the barbell row for this person. This applies to virtually every body part. Barbell curls are very uncomfortable for a lot of people but they continue to do them anyway because they are seen as a staple in bicep routines. There is nothing wrong with finding a machine replacement.

Who Cares About Stabilizers?

You always hear about the stabilizer muscles but most people don't even know what they are. Stabilizer muscles are mostly in reference to your core and ability to balance the weight. In my opinion, it is stupid to do an exercise for the sole reason of hitting your stabilizer muscles. You are probably training your core separately anyway and your core is still used when using machines. Ever feel your abs when doing tricep pushdowns?

It is true that a machine doesn't develop your balancing ability as well. If you use a bench machine for a few months and then switch to barbell bench, you will probably have difficulty balancing the weight. However, that balance will develop very quickly once you do start doing that exercise so I wouldn't worry about it.

Be Honest with Yourself

It's imperative to be honest with yourself. Machines are easier than free weights. You don't need to load plates on certain ones and it is less difficult mentally when you aren't responsible for stabilizing the weight. With that in mind, you need to make sure you are only choosing a machine because you actually feel that machine more than the free weight alternative and not because you are being lazy. If you aren't honest with yourself and are just being lazy then you are just cheating yourself.

My Chest Experience

I used to always choose free weights over machines no matter what. I knew that I felt certain machines more than free weights but I had always read that free weights are better so I continued to do them because I thought I was supposed to. Finally, I noticed my upper chest wasn't developing at all from doing barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press. I began doing an incline bench machine that I had always felt ten times more than barbells and dumbbells but was always too afraid to use since I thought it was inferior. After making the switch, my upper chest finally progressed. I was finally targeting it in a more efficient way for my body. For someone else, barbells and dumbbells may be better for chest development but for me, it wasn't.

Other Considerations

Safety is another important issue. Free weights can be dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. If you are uncomfortable doing an exercise, try a machine instead. Even if the machine isn't great, it is still better to work the muscle with a machine than hurt yourself and have to take time off.

If you are recovering from an injury, you may also want to go easy on the free weights to ease your body back into it. The last thing you want is to injure yourself again.


To sum up, machines are not bad. You can build a solid physique while using them. When choosing exercises, don't be caught up in doing what you think you are supposed to do but do what you feel the most. For most people, this will be a combination of both machines and free weights.


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