Free Weights vs Machines

Free Weights vs Machines,
What’s Better?

Free Weights vs. Machines - members strength training

Free weights or machines?

This debate has existed in the fitness industry since the first strength training machines were invented in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “____ is better.”

Machines and free weights both have benefits and drawbacks. Read below to learn which option is best for you.

Strength Training Basics

Strength training was created over 2,000 years ago with the Ancient Greeks (Feld, 2020). They would build strength and muscle by lifting rocks, bags of sand, and the original version of a medicine ball.

Thankfully, strength training equipment has evolved. In the 1860s, barbells and dumbbells were created (Soleyn, n.d.). They were followed by the creation of the kettlebells and resistance bands in the late 1800s, cable machines in the 1950s, and the first line of strength training machines in the 1970s (Feld, 2020).

While there’s consensus in the fitness and medical fields that strength training is good for overall health, there is much debate about what type of strength training equipment is most effective for strength gains or increasing muscle size.

The debate is usually simplified into two categories: free weights and machines.

Free weights are objects that are “free” of any attachment. You can move them anywhere. The most common free weights used are dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, and kettlebells.

Machines have a fixed path of motion and are often specialized for a specific movement. Most have weight stacks where the weight is selected by inserting a pin or flipping a switch.

Strength training with either type of equipment is effective for building strength, muscle, bone density, and for enhancing health. With that said, free weights and machines contrast in their strengths (no pun intended) and weaknesses.

Female strength training on a machine and male strength training with free weights

Free Weights vs Machines

Versatility

If you are looking to use one piece of equipment for as many exercises as possible, free weights are the best option.

A barbell (with a collection of weight plates), for example, can be used for a bench press, back squat, deadlift, curls, a shoulder press, and bent-over row. This one piece of equipment can be used to target all major muscle groups.

Dumbbells are also versatile, although a range of dumbbells are needed to account for the differing strength levels necessary for different exercises and to provide options for progressing resistance.

Machines are generally limited in their versatility. An example of this is the leg press. A leg press is generally only useful for two exercises: a leg press or calf raise.

Safety

Machines hold the advantage of providing a safer strength training workout. Machines offer more stability with most being seated and isolating movement in the targeted muscle groups.

There’s also no risk of dropping the weight on oneself. With a barbell bench press or a dumbbell shoulder press, a person could easily drop the weight onto their chest, head, or feet if losing control.

On a machine, dropping the weight translates to the weight plates simply dropping onto the weight stack… aka slamming the weights. While this causes a loud noise and should still be avoided for proper maintenance and courtesy, no weight actually lands on the lifter.

Free weights, in some cases, also place more force and compression on joints (Escamilla et al., 2001).

A research team in Australia tracked gym injuries over a 14-year period (Gray & Finch, 2015). Free-weight training was responsible for most of the cases, with 55% of the 3,000-plus injuries taking place during free-weight exercises. (Essentially all of the other injuries took place during non-strength training activities: group aerobics classes, boxing, treadmill running, and jumping exercises).

Muscle Growth & Strength

Traditionally, free weights are the go-to tool to maximize strength and muscle growth. But are they proven to be the most effective equipment for reaching these goals? The research isn’t clear.

One study found that the barbell bench press and its machine equivalent, the chest press, were equally effective in activating the muscle fibers in the chest, shoulders, and triceps (McCaw & Friday, 1994).

However, a study comparing a barbell squat with a leg press (on a leg press machine) showed that the squat was more effective for activating muscle fibers in the quadriceps and hamstrings (Escamilla et al., 2001), indicating that the squats might be more effective for producing muscle growth over time.

A recent study dove further into the question of which is best for muscle growth and strength (Schwanbeck et al., 2020). Men and women trained 2-3 times per week with either the free weight or machine version of the same basic movements.

At the end, the researchers measured both groups’ progress. Which type of equipment led to better “gains?” Neither. The free weight and machine groups had similar increases in both strength and muscle size.

Leg extension machine

So What’s Better, Free Weights or Machines?

Strength training with machines or free weights will enhance your health, bone density, strength, and muscle size. Your life will benefit from either approach.

If you seek versatility in being able to do the most with the least amount of equipment, if your space is limited, or if you want equipment that’s easier to transport, free weights are the best option.

On the other hand, machines are significantly safer. Free-weight exercises are responsible for the majority of injuries in gyms. Machines eliminate the possibility of injuries as a result of you or others dropping the weight.

Finally, when the workload is the same, machines and free weights produce similar levels of strength and muscle development.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S., Zheng, N., Lander, J.E., Barrentine, S.W., Andrews, J.R., … Moorman, C.T. (2001). Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(9), 1552-1566.
  • Feld, J. (2020). The constant evolution of fitness equipment. IHRSA. Retrieved from https://www.ihrsa.org/improve-your-club/the-constant-evolution-of-fitness-equipment/
  • Gray, S.E. & Finch, C.F. (2015). The causes of injuries sustained at fitness facilities presenting to Victorian emergency departments – identifying the main culprits. Injury Epidemiology, 2(1), 6.
  • McCaw, S.T. & Friday, J.J. (1994). A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight and machine bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(4), 259-264.
  • Schwanbeck, S.R., Cornish, S.M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P.D. (2020). Effects of training with free weights versus machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol levels. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(7), 1851-1859.
  • Soleyn, N. (n.d.). Strength performers and early barbells. Barbell Logic. Retrieved from https://barbell-logic.com/early-barbell/

Using Heavier Weight Loads

Using Heavier Weight Loads

Mission Monday Episode 10

The Perfect Workout helps you achieve great health and fitness through challenging but safe workouts.

Part of the challenge that leads to such great results is working against a relatively high amount of resistance on each exercise.

However, this challenge can be tough to adjust to…

Use Heavy Weights

If you understand the “WHY,” you will embrace the challenge of working against a resistance that will fatigue your muscles in about 60 seconds.

Working against a lighter resistance is more comfortable. A lighter resistance starts easy and can be lifted for a while before muscles start to fatigue. Light resistance, though, is NOT ideal for what your body needs.

This is easy to see when looking at the research.

A study published in 2017 tested the effectiveness of training with light weights and more reps versus heavier weights with fewer reps.

Despite performing about one-third of the reps, the heavier weight group gained more muscle and 3X more strength.

This isn’t surprising when diving into exercise physiology.

Our muscles feature slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers focus on less challenging and longer-duration activities, such as walking and standing.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers work most in challenging activities, such as lifting heavy objects and walking up steep stairs. Fast-twitch fibers are also the fibers that grow the most and are the muscle fibers that atrophy the most with age.

When we lift lighter weights, we do little to nothing for those fast-twitch fibers. To fight aging and maximize strength and muscle gains, we need to lift heavier weights.

Challenging weights are also critical for another important strength training benefit: bone density.

A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that heavier weights with fewer reps increased bone density while lighter weights did not.

With all of this in mind, here’s our recommendation

  • Work with your personal trainer to use weights that lead to Muscle Success at about 60 seconds
  • If you are reaching Muscle Success at 90 seconds or longer, increase the weights until you are finishing sets at about one minute
  • Performing a set for two minutes means the weight is way too light

Challenging weights are going to help you maximize your muscle strength, size, and bone density.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Jenkins, N.D., Miramonti, A.A., Hill, E.C., Smith, C.M., Cochrane-Snyman, K.C., Housh, T.J., & Cramer, J.T. (2017). Greater neural adaptations following high- vs. low-load resistance training. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 331.
  • Kerr, D., Morton, A., Dick, I., & Prince, R. (1996). Exercise effects on bone mass in postmenopausal women are site‐specific and load‐dependent. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 11(2), 218-225.
  • Kraemer, W. J., Adams, K., Cafarelli, E., Dudley, G. A., Dooly, C., Feigenbaum, M. S., … & Newton, R. U. (2002). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(2), 364-380.

Using Heavier Weight Loads

Mission Monday Episode 10

The Perfect Workout helps you achieve great health and fitness through challenging but safe workouts.

Part of the challenge that leads to such great results is working against a relatively high amount of resistance on each exercise.

However, this challenge can be tough to adjust to…

Use Heavy Weights

If you understand the “WHY,” you will embrace the challenge of working against a resistance that will fatigue your muscles in about 60 seconds.

Working against a lighter resistance is more comfortable. A lighter resistance starts easy and can be lifted for a while before muscles start to fatigue. Light resistance, though, is NOT ideal for what your body needs.

This is easy to see when looking at the research.

A study published in 2017 tested the effectiveness of training with light weights and more reps versus heavier weights with fewer reps.

Despite performing about one-third of the reps, the heavier weight group gained more muscle and 3X more strength.

This isn’t surprising when diving into exercise physiology.

Our muscles feature slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers focus on less challenging and longer-duration activities, such as walking and standing.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers work most in challenging activities, such as lifting heavy objects and walking up steep stairs. Fast-twitch fibers are also the fibers that grow the most and are the muscle fibers that atrophy the most with age.

When we lift lighter weights, we do little to nothing for those fast-twitch fibers. To fight aging and maximize strength and muscle gains, we need to lift heavier weights.

Challenging weights are also critical for another important strength training benefit: bone density.

A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that heavier weights with fewer reps increased bone density while lighter weights did not.

With all of this in mind, here’s our recommendation

  • Work with your personal trainer to use weights that lead to Muscle Success at about 60 seconds
  • If you are reaching Muscle Success at 90 seconds or longer, increase the weights until you are finishing sets at about one minute
  • Performing a set for two minutes means the weight is way too light

Challenging weights are going to help you maximize your muscle strength, size, and bone density.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Jenkins, N.D., Miramonti, A.A., Hill, E.C., Smith, C.M., Cochrane-Snyman, K.C., Housh, T.J., & Cramer, J.T. (2017). Greater neural adaptations following high- vs. low-load resistance training. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 331.
  • Kerr, D., Morton, A., Dick, I., & Prince, R. (1996). Exercise effects on bone mass in postmenopausal women are site‐specific and load‐dependent. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 11(2), 218-225.
  • Kraemer, W. J., Adams, K., Cafarelli, E., Dudley, G. A., Dooly, C., Feigenbaum, M. S., … & Newton, R. U. (2002). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(2), 364-380.

Hip Strength And Mobility

Hip Strength And Mobility - What You Should Know

Female strength training for hip strength and mobility

The hip bone’s connected to the… everything!

Maybe not anatomically, but the hip joint is the largest weight-bearing joint in the human body, and it is a hub for functional movement.

Having strong hip joints and surrounding muscles helps maintain mobility and our ability to perform basic activities of daily living.

Thankfully, maintaining hip strength and mobility can be achieved through a few exercises performed on a regular basis. To learn more, scroll down.

The Importance of the Hip Joint

Healthy hips are fundamental to many day-to-day activities. The hip joint is where the head of the thigh bone (femur) meets an indented space on the pelvis. Hips support our body weight when standing. They are also critical to the processes of walking, climbing stairs, running, sitting, standing, and bending over.

The hips are so important that our strongest muscles — the quadriceps and glutes — are located around and help move the hip joint. Unfortunately, the hip joint is an area that’s highly susceptible to the “wear and tear” of life and aging.

Hips are also the most common site of osteoporosis and fractures with advancing age. Every year, 350,000 hip fractures happen in the United States (Hopkins Medicine). When hip fractures occur, they lead to a loss of independence and, in some cases, a loss of life.

Threats to Hip Health

Osteoporosis, a condition of low bone density, is a “silent” disease. You don’t feel it. You don’t see it. However, people start losing bone strength in their 30s, and that rate of loss picks up after age 50. As a result, bones become weak and susceptible to breaking with an event like falling.

Because the hip joint bears the most weight, it can be heavily impacted by osteoporosis. The thinner “neck” of the femur is the biggest risk for bone density loss and subsequent fractures.

Not only is this the most common site of fractures, but it’s also the most severe place to have a fracture. About one in five older adults die within a year of having a hip fracture, and a large portion of those who survive lose mobility and independence (Schnell et al., 2010).

Osteoporosis isn’t the only concern for hip health. The hip joint is one of the most common sites for arthritis. It’s especially common for people who have experienced years of more-than-normal force on the joint. These individuals typically have a background in athletics, dance, distance running, or people who have been obese.

With arthritis, people lose hip mobility, the joint feels tight, stiff, and painful, and about a third of people with hip arthritis get a joint replacement (Quintana, Arostegui, & Escobar, 2008).

Hip Strength & Mobility

Suffering from hip osteoporosis or arthritis as we age isn’t inevitable. Hip health can be maintained or even improved by focusing on two factors: hip strength and hip mobility.

Enhancing hip strength and a full range of motion can reduce the risk of suffering from hip pain, hip injury, or losing independence (Carneiro et al., 2015; Snyder et al., 2009).

The question then becomes, “How can we enhance hip strength and range of motion?” Strength training.

Multiple studies show strength training 2-3 times a week can enhance hip muscle strength, bone density, and range of motion (Carneiro et al., 2015; Rhoades et al., 2000; Snyder et al., 2009). (Though our slow-motion strength training method can accomplish those things in just 20 minutes, twice a week.)

These studies used a variety of approaches, ranging from using a few lower body exercises to full-body routines. Only a few exercises, though, are needed to improve hip health.

Resistance Exercises for Hip
Strength & Mobility

Leg Press

The leg press is not only the most important exercise in a workout, targeting the largest muscle groups, but it’s also critical for hip health. The leg press and its exercise variations below strengthen the largest muscle that supports the hip joint: the gluteus maximus.

In this exercise, you slowly push through your heels, keeping your buttocks down in the seat, pushing each repetition to the point just shy of locking out your knees. You then resist the weight all the way down to the bottom of the range of motion, barely touching the weight stack, and slowly beginning again. Repeat until you achieve “muscle success”.

It also improves bone density in the hip and surrounding areas (Rhoades et al., 2000). The leg press also increases range of motion for several key movements that involve the hip joint (Rhoades et al., 2000).

Read about John Abel, who’s improved his hip health at The Perfect Workout.

Hip Abduction

Hip abduction, commonly referred to as the “outer thigh exercise,” or “ABD,” strengthens muscles that are vital for basic activities such as walking: the gluteus medius and minimus.

Performing hip abduction helps strengthen those muscles plus increases lateral hip mobility (Snyder et al., 2009). Between the leg press and hip abduction, hip mobility improves in all directions.

At-Home Exercises for Hip Strength & Mobility

The leg press and hip abduction are ideal for achieving the goals of adding hip strength and range of motion. There are home exercises, though, which can mimic those movements.

Chair Stands

To perform this exercise, you sit in a squat position and stand from a chair. The challenge is to have as low of a chair as possible and to use slow movement.

Position yourself to sit on the edge of the chair. Keep your chest up and look forward. As you slowly stand, push through your heels and the middle of your feet. As you lower yourself with bent knees, only briefly allow your butt to contact the chair before slowly starting upwards.

Repeat until you achieve muscle success. This exercise targets the same muscle groups as the leg press does: the gluteus maximus and quadriceps.

Standing Hip Abduction with Resistance Bands

Mimicking the muscles that are used in the machine exercise that has the same name, the standing hip abduction involves standing and holding onto a counter or chair.

Place a resistance band around the outside of both ankles. Train one leg at a time. Keep the other leg on the ground and use that for balance. The moving leg moves out to the side as far as possible, then slowly moves back toward the standing leg. Once the moving leg’s foot taps the ground, it should slowly move outwards to the side again.

Repeat until you achieve Muscle Success, then switch to train the other leg.

Hip Health Summarized

A healthy hip joint is critical. It’s the center of basic activities, such as standing, sitting, and walking. Therefore, we must keep the joint healthy.

Aging and the wear and tear of life’s activities lead to skeletal concerns, which increase the risk of hip pain, swelling, loss of movement, and fractures. To protect your hip joint, you can strength train with exercises involving the area.

These hip exercises help improve muscle strength, bone strength, and mobility. The specific exercises that are most important for hip health are the leg press and hip abduction. At-home replacements are using resistance bands during standing hip abduction and performing chair stands.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Carneiro, N. H., Ribeiro, A. S., Nascimento, M. A., Gobbo, L. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Júnior, A. A., … & Cyrino, E. S. (2015). Effects of different resistance training frequencies on flexibility in older women. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 10, 531.
  • Quintana, J.M., Arostegui, I., & Escobar, A. (2008). Prevalence of knee and hip osteoarthritis and the appropriateness of joint replacement in an older population. JAMA Internal Medicine, 168(14), 1576-1584.
  • Rhodes, E., Martin, A., Taunton, J., Donnelly, M., Warren, J., & Elliot, J. (2000). Effects of one year of resistance training on the relation between muscular strength and bone density in elderly women. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(1), 18-22.
  • Schnell, S., Friedman, S.M., Mendelon, D.A., Bingham, K.W., & Kates, S.L. (2010). The 1-year mortality of patients treated in a hip fracture program for elders. Geriatric Orthopaedic Surgery & Rehabilitation, 1(1), 6-14.
  • Snyder, K. R., Earl, J. E., O’Connor, K. M., & Ebersole, K. T. (2009). Resistance training is accompanied by increases in hip strength and changes in lower extremity biomechanics during running. Clinical Biomechanics, 24(1), 26-34.

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