Machines, Free Weights or Body Weight – Which is Best For Strength ?
There are many different types of equipment that can be used for strength training. In each LivRite Fitness location you will see many weight machines, cable towers, a free weight area with barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls and kettlebells, as well as room for individuals to work on bodyweight exercises.
And that’s just the areas for strength training! When first coming into the club, looking at all of that equipment might seem overwhelming. What to do?
First, let’s go over the benefits of strength training. Whether your goal is to build muscle mass or achieve a fitter, more toned body, weight training can help you get there.
Weight training, also known as resistance or strength training, builds lean, stronger muscles or if done a certain way can build larger muscles like a bodybuilder. (Don’t worry, you won’t bulk up unless you are specifically training to do so, it’s not that easy to do!) Before I became a personal trainer, I would go into the gym just to hop on the treadmill or elliptical and leave.
The strength training areas intimidated me.
I had no idea how to use any of the equipment and didn’t know what I should be doing. When I learned more about why resistance training is important, I made an appointment with a trainer at the gym to have a Fitness Assessment and learn more about how to use the equipment
. Now my strength training routine supports my running habit by helping to keep me injury free, plus it also has many other benefits:
- Improved strength
- Increased muscle mass
- Reduced injuries
- Increased bone density
- Joint flexibility
- Reduced risk of depression
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure
- Stronger immune system
- Faster weight loss (combined with any necessary dietary changes)
- Easier weight maintenance
As I mentioned, there are different ways to strength train. There are weight machines, free weights like dumbbells and barbells and there are also bodyweight exercises. All of these methods can create resistance to strengthen your muscles.
But is one style of weight training best? Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Machines – Selectorized machines have weight stacks that always move vertically to provide a consistent resistance force throughout the lifting and lowering actions.
Advantages to Weight Machines Include:
- Some machines can isolate a single muscle or group of muscles. This can be especially helpful if working with an injury or recovering from an injury.
- Machines are great for beginners because they help keep proper form when used correctly.
- Changing the amount of weight used is faster than with free weights.
- Using machines can be a safer way to strength train when alone.
Disadvantages to Weight Machines Include:
- The movements typically done with machines are not functional movements. While they are making you stronger, the movements don’t necessarily translate to everyday activities or sports.
- Because machines focus on just one muscle or muscle group at a time, you will need multiple machines to get a full workout.
- Some machines are not adjustable enough to accommodate those who are shorter or taller than average.
- It’s more difficult to recruit stabilizer and helper muscles with machines. Neglecting these smaller muscles for too long could risk chronic injury.
- Weight machines are expensive, take up a lot of room and typically require a gym membership to access.
Free Weights – Free-weight exercises include both barbell and dumbbell exercises. Kettlebells and Medicine Balls can also be used in free weight training.
Advantages to Free Weights Include:
- Barbell exercises typically permit heavier workloads.
- Dumbbell exercises require equal force from both arms, which is helpful when working with an imbalance.
- Numerous exercise combination possibilities makes free weight training a highly versatile means of strength training.
- Free weights require the use of stabilizing muscles which can be more effective in producing overall strength and help improve balance.
Disadvantages to Free Weights Include:
- Free weights can be dangerous due to the possibility of dropping the weight. Exercises like the bench press should be done with a spotter.
- It can be difficult to ensure proper technique, especially when new to strength training, which can lead to injury. Having a trainer or workout buddy to help with correct form could be beneficial, especially at first, when using free weights.
- Isolating specific muscles can be difficult with free weights.
Body Weight – Bodyweight exercises use just your own body as resistance. No additional weight is added as in the other methods discussed above. Push-ups, planks, lunges and air squats are just a few examples of popular and effective bodyweight moves.
Advantages to Bodyweight Exercises Include:
- Bodyweight training is very practical and inexpensive. It can be done anywhere because it does not require any equipment.
- Bodyweight movement can improve balance by utilizing the core muscles in many exercises.
- Bodyweight training is a good way to learn the correct form of some exercises. For example, before adding weight to a squat, the squat form should be perfected with just body weight.
- Bodyweight exercises can easily be both cardio and strength training at the same time by adding speed or plyometrics.
Disadvantages to Bodyweight Exercises Include:
- Bodyweight training is limited to the resistance provided by your body weight. With machines and free weights you can add more weight as strength increases.
- Improper form, leading to potential injury, can be a risk with body weight exercises. Having a trainer or workout buddy help to ensure the correct form is used is helpful, especially when new to body weight exercises.
Resistance Bands - Another way to strength train is to use an elastic band. There are many types of resistance bands available; some with handles at each end, others are large complete loops and some are mini band loops. Like bodyweight training this kind of workout is accessible and inexpensive. It’s also easy to scale up and down if you have a variety of bands with different resistance levels. Bands can be easier on the joints and can be used more safely when alone than free weights since there is no risk of dropping the weight on your feet or chest. Bands can also be added to some exercises done with free weights to increase the difficultly and subsequently the muscle gain. A disadvantage of using bands is that the resistance does not go as high as a machine or free weights.
As with so many things in fitness, the answer is not definitive. As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to using free weights, body weight exercises and weight machines. No single piece of weight training equipment or type of resistance training is best for everyone.
The most important factor for increasing muscular strength is progressively increasing the amount of resistance applied, no matter what equipment is being used and all of these methods will work your muscles.
Unless you are working toward a very specific goal, it’s a good idea to utilize a few of the different strength training types in your routine to ensure all muscles are worked in multiple ways. Choose a weight training system that you enjoy and works with your lifestyle and current situation.
Whichever type of resistance you go with, aim to do resistance training exercises for all of the major muscle groups at least two days a week, keeping at least one day between strength training sessions for the muscle group. And remember that proper form and technique is always the most important thing in all of the ways to strength train.
If you’ve never lifted weights before, consider starting out with the help of a certified personal trainer.
After a complimentary fitness assessment, they’ll be able to teach you the proper form for specific exercises and set up a strength training program tailored to your goals and current fitness level.