When you first walk into your average gym, you’re greeted by a counter, large windows and a huge open space with countless levers and pulleys: The Machines. Rows and rows of metal contraptions designed to safely execute specific movements on a fixed path.
“That’s a great idea!” And in theory, it is. In practice however, it is not optimal for your health or your potential gains in the gym.
Free weights, on the other hand, do more than just build the targeted muscle group. Take the bench press, for instance. When you’re executing a proper bench press you’ll feel your abdominals, obliques and back all working together in an isometric hold to keep your body stationary under the weight. A smaller subsection of your body – your shoulders, forearms and neck muscles – are working jointly to stabilize the load and keep it from waving front to back. So, not only are your chest and triceps pushing the weight, a large portion of your upper body is getting worked at the same time. That is something that machines cannot replicate.
The movement path of that barbell is also a point of concern. Your body, my body and your neighbor’s body are all different. Different arm lengths, different torso sizes, broader shoulders…. And the list goes on. But a machine is on a fixed path, meaning you cannot deviate from how the machine allows you to move. For some, that’s fine; you don’t need to move any differently. For others, however, being on a fixed path can potentially end in injury. Weak tendons in a particular path of movement, for example, can be irritated by moving in that path routinely. “RSI,” or repetitive strain injuries, can also be agitated by the constant fixed movements. With free weights, you want to get the movement as close to constant as possible, but the extra freedom allows you to change your form as necessary.
Finally, time, as they say, is money. Why waste it on complete isolation exercises, increasing your total work load by two or three times, when you can accomplish the same task with compound free weight movements? As I mentioned before, the bench press will not only target your chest and triceps, but most of your upper body. Just as the squat will help your upper back, glutes, lower back, calves and core just as much as your legs.
Machines do serve a purpose, though. As mentioned, machines are the kings of isolation. Supplementing your main lifts with exercise machines can help bring up weak points in your physique. A technique not often explored is pre-exhausting muscle groups to ensure you’re lifting with the right groups. Fixed-path machines are great for this technique. Before hopping on the flat bench, isolate your triceps and work them. When you go to lift the barbell off your chest, you can be sure it’s your chest doing the work.
So, the next time you walk into your gym ready to get to work on building that perfect physique, greet the front counter, take in the sights, but don’t stop at the machines. Walk on by. Head to the free weights and burn the calories. You will be thanking yourself later.