There is a lot of back and forth on which is better for strength training—free weights or machines. Some people get fanatical about this and say that free weights can yield better results and others swear by cable machines. This is one of the biggest debates in the fitness world. So once and for all: which is better—free weights or machines?
My answer is that both work and what you choose will depend on your specific fitness level and goals.
Let's start with machines. What I like best about machines is that you don't have to pay so much attention to form, balance and coordination. The machine guides you through the movement, almost like having your own personal trainer. For this reason, machines are perfect for many first-timers, seniors and those recovering from an injury.
One machine that gives you a great workout for strengthening and toning your pectorals or chest muscles is the "pec deck." One of the reasons why it works so well is that the machine "forces" you to perform the proper movement. And it helps isolate your chest muscles without involving lots of other muscles so you get the most bang for your buck. For men, this machine can help give you nice definition to your chest muscles. For women, this machine does a great job of firming and toning things up. If you try this same movement with free weights or dumbbells, it's sometimes difficult to get the same controlled movement isolating just your chest, especially for those new to fitness.
Machines are also good if you want to add circuit training to your routine. Circuit training involves going from one machine to the next with little rest in between. You use a doable weight and perform each exercise until your muscles are fatigued and you just can't do another repetition. The machines allow you to go quickly from one exercise to the next without having to mess around changing plates and adding collars. Circuit training is a terrific way to build muscular endurance and add some variation to your workout routine.
Now on to free weights. You might get intimidated at the gym because many of the big boys are tend to monopolize the free weights. Don't be intimidated! One of the reasons many athletes like to train with free weights over machines is that they require more balance, coordination and utilization of stabilizer muscles. For example, if you're doing a standing dumbbell shoulder press, you're not only working your shoulder muscles but also your abdominals and leg muscles to stabilize your body. Some research shows that you can even burn more calories doing your weight training activities standing rather than sitting.
Free weights are more versatile than machines, allowing more range of motion and variation. And if you want to work out at home or outdoors, nothing beats a good ole set of dumbbells. They are inexpensive and take up very little space.
If you decide to use free weights, you must always be aware of your form. There's much more room for error as opposed to the controlled movement on a machine. And, in the beginning, use a weight that's comfortable. If the weight is too heavy, you're probably going to sacrifice form and that can be a real invitation for injury.
As for me, I like to use a combination of free weights and machines. For the upper body I love to use dumbbells. Particularly, I like to do dumbbell exercises standing when I can (standing shoulder press, standing bicep curl and standing triceps extension are good ones). For my legs, barbell squats and deadlifts are my favorite, but I like to add single-leg extensions and single-leg curl machines. If you have any kind of knee problems, machines are the way to go.
Whether you use machines or free weights, the bottom line is consistency, intensity and variation of your workouts. Don't be afraid to mix up it up. It's your body—push it, challenge it and most importantly—enjoy it.
Joe Decker is an ultra-endurance power athlete and renowned fitness trainer who has helped thousands of people get into shape. He has completed many of the world's toughest endurance events, including the Badwater 135, and the Grand Slam of UltraRunning. In 2000, Joe broke the Guinness World Records? Twenty-four-hour Physical Fitness Challenge to help inspire and motivate people to get fit. He is recognized as "The World's Fittest Man." Visit his website at www.joe-decker.com.