Machines vs. Free Weights: A Problem of Context

This is one of the oldest and most frequently debated subjects in the field of weight training.

As per the status quo in these arguments, you have camps that are polarized on both sides of the issue.

I’ll give a little summary of each side, then throw in the Common Sense outlook.

The Machine Proponents

Those that think machines are the best choice base it largely on two key points: one, that lifting with machines is inherently safer than lifting with free weights, and two, since lifting is a general activity and therefore won’t have any specific carryover to the sport action.

The first point is something that has been debunked more than once. Put simply, anything that exposes the body to progressive resistance is potentially dangerous. If you want to avoid the potential forgetting hurt, stay away from the weight room. In fact, remove everything from your house, cover the walls in padding, and never leave.

This is further compounded by the fact that there is no evidence to support the assertion that a well-designed and well-supervised program with free weights is any more potentially injurious than machines. The key to injury prevention is the well-designed and well-supervised part, not any particular implement.

Regarding specificity, this is a different topic somewhat. It is true that strength training is a form of general training for most competitive athletes, barring powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters (where the barbell work is also the sport). However, where the generalists miss the boat is that it’s not always the actual movement pattern that is the carryover. The more generalized motor qualities can carry over as well.

For example, force output has several components: available muscle mass, connective tissue strength, ability to activate motor units and keep them activated for the duration of the movement (which relates to explosive strength and rate of force development), ability to generate maximal force output (rate coding, the ability to neurally produce more force output after you’ve activated all fibers by increasing the firing frequency), to name the big ones.

If you’re just training with machines in fixed planes of motion, you’re missing out on most of those. You’ll improve muscle mass and possibly maximal strength to a point, but since the design limits of most (not all) machines make true maximal effort training almost impossible it will be much more difficult. The more advanced you become in fact, the less that generalized strength training will help you improve, which almost mandates more skill-specific training.

As an example, the Australian sprint cycling team uses explosive unilateral leg presses and single-leg squats as a big part of their training, due to the nature of the sport.

Yes strength and skill are two different things, but there’s more carryover than the machine advocates would want you to think.

Free Weight Advocates

On the other side of the coin there are the free weight advocates.

I do tend to personally gravitate more towards this side of the issue, but make no mistake: this side can still say some very retarded and myopic things as well.

Most of it revolves around outright dismissing machines of any sort as having any usefulness whatsoever. Now it is true that free weights tend to have several things that put them above machines in any serious lifter or athlete’s programming.

I’ll add to that by saying that if I had to choose between the two, free weights would win hands down. However, I don’t have to choose between them, and neither do the vast majority of people, so why would I take such a stupid position? I have access to both, so I’ll use both as they fit my needs.

Most of this originates from the NSCA and ACSM fanatics that have taken the free-weights-are-better stance as official positions, and thus have certified twenty years worth of the somewhat more intellectual and much more academic side of the coaching field in this philosophy.

Since a thinking man will always be a thinking man and a follower will always be a follower, it’s not any more surprising that people on this side of the debate are just as myopic. The only difference is they tend to have more letters after their names and have different gods to worship.

Of course you’ve also got that raw-dawg HARDCORE4LYFE crowd that refuses to accept machines have any use at all because apparently it challenges their manhood. This kind will throw around epithets like “fag” and “pussy” if you use anything that’s not a 7 foot long bar of iron as a training implement. It’s ok though, most of those get injured because of their stupidity, so we can more or less discount them as “idiots”.

The Common Sense Side

Now as per most of these debates, this is a classic instance of polarized black/white thinking, from both sides. Neither is totally correct nor totally wrong in their assumptions.

Why people get locked into these false dilemmas I don’t know, but my thoughts on that have to do with people being more interested in having a One True Way™ and being part of a group than actually realizing results. People are funny like that, and you don’t have to look far to see that kind of clannish behavior in the world.

Anything that locks you into a particular mindset is bad, and this is no exception. I know I can certainly fall into this trap at times, but believe it or not I will almost always try to give the benefit of the doubt to something that might have credibility. Dismissing an idea outright is pretty pointless unless you’ve got a very strong case for dismissing it.

The simple fact is that resistance is resistance, from the standpoint of how the body will respond. In some instances a barbell or dumbbell exercise might fit the bill. In others, you might be better off with a machine.

Some machines, like the plate-loading Hammer Strength line have the advantage of allowing much greater progression and simple overload of the relevant muscle groups. You can pile on a ton of weight and use the low-skill movement to create your overload.

When might this be appropriate? Take for example a routine that involves lots of squatting, has some fairly heavy deadlifting, and still calls for heavy back work. The first thing the free weight zealots would jump on is the barbell row.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some barbell rowing. It’s easy the best free weight exercise for the back by a long shot. But what happens if your lower back is fried from all the squatting and pulling? Do you just throw barbell rows in anyway, because you’re hardcore and have to show everyone how little your penis is?

You could, and risk messing yourself up. Or you could just jump on one of the HS back machines and use that to work your upper back without adding to the pounding on your erectors.

It’s little things like that, basic common sense, that the myopic thinking avoids. In that exact scenario, I’ve had people tell me that using a machine in place of the barbell row wasn’t effective, even when the guy asking about it was complaining of lower back fatigue and overuse interfering in his other lifts.

Their rationale? The program said to use barbell rows. Oh, and free weights are better than machines. This is why I really get boggled with people at times; the logical conclusion in that instance is just to remove the source of the trouble and replace it with something equivalent. This is the essence of a good coach, being able to make decisions like that to benefit the overall plan, not to bend it to some moronic ideals.

Is the machine better than the barbell row? Maybe not in absolute terms, but in this instance it most certainly is.

Another instance is the much-hated Smith machine. Again, the Smith is not a god-send, but it’s not the evil demon from hell a lot of would-be know it alls make it out to be.

I wouldn’t have someone squat in it for sure; this doesn’t do anything that a leg press doesn’t do, and do better. But hell even then, I can still see some potential utility for it just as some pump-n-tone fluff at the end of a workout, if that’s your thing. For upper body pressing work, it’s phenomenal. Much like the Hammer Strength row example, or the leg press, it allows you to pile on weight and focus on low-skill overload.

I even suggested to one guy, who had been suffering from long-term shoulder pain and unable to do any sort of pressing, to throw in some low-incline work on the Smith. Guess what? He was able to do it pain free for the first time in years. Is it optimal? Not likely, but at least now he can train those muscles with something besides flyes and tricep pushdowns.

The same thought process applies even to little machines like the leg extension and leg curl. How much flak have those gotten from the know it alls? The leg curl has a special utility; barring a glute-ham raise, no other exercise directly works the knee flexion component of the hamstrings. Andy Bolton, the first man to deadlift over 1000 lbs, uses leg curls.

How about leg extensions? Powerlifters such as Ed Coan, the guy that has set world records in every weight class (many of which still stand today) used them in his program. How do you replicate that with free weights? Sure single-leg work like lunges is great, but what about times when you want to put directed tension on the quads without worrying about your core stabilization and all the other focus that goes into higher skill movements?

The point here is not to use appeals to authority; Coan, Bolton, and any other example you care to name are elites that would succeed regardless of their exercises, but that’s kinda what I’m getting at. There’s no evil exercises. Even stuff that you constantly hear getting battered can still have some utility. It’s just a matter of using the right tool for the right job.

It may be that for you, as the ndividual, leg extensions suck. Or you have no need for Hammer Strength machines. In a pinch you can definitely survive without them. If you’re a strength athlete, you don’t need them. If you’re a bodybuilder, you might. The list goes on, and there are any number of examples that could be placed here.

Going back to the original theme of programming: everybody’s got different goals, and different goals call for different tools.

Your mileage may vary.

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