Comparison of two different training methods, which one is the best?
These training methods have different characteristics with varied advantages and disadvantages. Before deciding which method is better than the other, it is important to identify the differences between free weight and resistance machine training.
Degree of Freedom and control
The first key aspect to consider is degree of freedom that free weights exercises allow. A simple example is between bench press and chest press. In the first exercise, a higher muscle control is required to maintain the correct execution throughout the whole movement; on the contrary, the resistance machine can aid in executing the exercise efficiently.
Secondly, a peculiarity of the resistance machines is the system of pulleys used to provide a bio-mechanical advantage during all range of movement, which creates the possibility to control a variety of loads. This support is not possible when performing free weight exercises. Moreover, exercises that use free weights (e.g. barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, body weight) engage more muscle groups in comparison to resistance machines. This is to maintain the correct exercise position, vital for appropriate form. Exercises performed in a standing position requires greater muscle involvement to improve stabilization and balance throughout the movement. Conversely, resistance machines require less muscle load to maintain postural control, in advantage of a possible isolation of a single muscle during the exercise.
Range of motion and risk of injuries
Another important topic is that when we use free weights we can move in three dimensions without mechanical constraints. This peculiarity is essential because free weight permits to replicate the daily life movements with an additional load. On the other hand, resistance machines are fixed to an axis that only allows us to move in one or two planes. Instead, the main disadvantage of free weights is the fact that they could increase the likelihood of injury among novice participants and distracted users, while resistance machines appear to be generally easier and safer. Thus, in general and without a specific exercise target beginners should prefer machines to free weights when they start new exercises, even if several movements cannot be executed with free weights, as leg curls and leg extension.
Overall, following the evidence, some studies have shown a greater increase in strength with resistance machines compared to free weights, but other investigations have reported contradictive results. It has to be highlighted that these participants were not athletes nor regular club users. Therefore, both free weights and resistance machines are useful and important to increase muscular mass. The differences in the strength improvement are mainly associated to intensity, volume, method or the rest period adopted during the training. Considering the features here above clarified, the ideal solution is to adopt both of them; we have to decide which one to use depending on the aim of the workout, the individual training level and the user’s physical needs. Neither modality of workout has shown absolute overall superiority: free weights and resistance machines should be considered complementary methods of training, since each of them has its essential benefits.
- Gregory G., Roundtable Discussion: Machines Versus Free Weights. National Strength & Conditioning Association (2000).
- Schwanbeck S., Chilibeck P.D., Binsted G., A comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat using electromyography. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Association (2009).
- Cotterman M.L., Darby L.A., Skelly W.A., Comparison of muscle force production using the Smith Machine and Free Weights for Bench Press and Squat exercises. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2005).
- Fisher J., Steele J., Bruce-Low S., Smith D., Evidence-based resistance training recommendations. Medicina Sportiva (2011).