People have been arguing about this since the Cretaceous Period — which is better: machines or free weights? Now, of course, there weren’t machines or free weights around 145 million years ago. In fact, neither were people.
But if they were there, they would have argued about which method of lifting is better for building muscle. And for some, the truth, much like the asteroid that struck the dinos, might catch you off guard…
What Are Machines?
Machines are the things that caused Y2K to happen, Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a Terminator, and allowed for Optimus Prime to lead to Autobots.
Gym machines are literally machines in the gym that you use to move a weight or resistance to exercise.
Some of the most popular you may have seen are:
- Any Hammer Strength machine
- Smith machines
- The “circuits” that some gyms have often have machines
- Assisted pull-up machines
- Leg extensions or leg curl machines
- … and many more
Machines for exercise may seem new, but the first is old. Properly old, like, 1857-old. Dr. Gustav Zander invented the torso-stretching machine, the arm-bending machine, and many more that all had… “benefits.”
Truth be told, whether these actually had real benefits is highly debatable, but it did set the stage for future engineers to develop other exercise machines. When the first “real” exercise machine debuted depends on which records you look at and, of course, what you define as an “exercise machine.”
Today, there are plenty of exercise machines available.
Some were designed specifically for mechanical overloads, such as the Hammer Strength machines. Others were developed to help those compromised by injuries or age exercise despite their limitations. It’s almost impossible to walk into a gym without seeing a machine of sorts.
* Note: For this article, we will not be looking at cardiovascular machines. We will only be looking at machines that use weights or resistance as a means of muscular contraction.
Can You Get Ripped With Just Machines?
A question we, as personal trainers, get all too commonly is if it’s possible to only use machines to get ripped or to only use machines in general.
Is that a possibility, and if so, why would you ever even use free weights? We’ll get into that last part a bit later.
For now, let’s answer the following — what does it take to get ripped?
- You have to be in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time.
- You have to be eating a surplus of protein per day.
- You have to train with resistance.
- You don’t have to do cardio, but it helps.
- You have to sleep and rest as much as you possibly can.
The truth is that you can get ripped only using machines.
Regardless of how you cut it, machines still provide resistance. They also still provide a stimulus to the muscle in order for muscle retention. Or if you do the other steps perfectly, even muscle growth.
Getting ripped has far more to do with your diet and lifestyle than which training style you use.
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5 Pros of Gym Machines
You may have never thought of this, but safety plays a massive role when it comes to training in the gym. If you’re not safe, you open up the floodgates to injuries and — more worryingly to those looking to get ripped — poor recovery.
Recovery, along with diet and training, makes up the big three of training for any goal. Can’t recover? Well, guess who’s going to struggle to make progress and might actually regress slightly?
But why is it safer? See, compared to free weights, machines usually are safer because if you drop the weight, it doesn’t land directly on you. It won’t force your limbs into a compromised position, and you typically don’t even need a spotter.
With machines, you can avoid… this:
All this means you get to experience greater safety. Some people often confuse this safety with “a lack of hypertrophy” or “weights are better.” Yeah, get under a 7-plate per side hack squat and tell me, “it’s not as good as a normal squat.”
2. It Might Be Easier to Target the Actual Muscle
Whenever we’re training specifically to try and get ripped, the goal is to use the weights to create a stimulus that allows the muscle to work. It does not mean that you’re trying to move the most amount of weight in the most insane way possible.
Stimulating a particular muscle might be easier with a machine. That’s because you’re essentially “locked in” a place where that muscle is placed in the most active position. Unlike free weights, you’re put in the most optimal position from the get-go.
Then, all you gotta do from there is a lift.
You don’t have to worry about stabilizing or something. You simply need to focus on the muscle and lift. This comes with a negative trade-off, which we’ll discuss in the cons list, but there is a benefit to this.
3. Great for Injured Individuals and Beginners
We’ve all been there. We get a slight niggle in the chest, but we still want to build big ‘ol juicy pecs — what to do? You can’t exactly strap 200 lbs to the bar and bang out an AMRAP set, can you?
Machines do offer you a slight solution, albeit limited still. See, lifting with machines (as we saw with point 1) can be safer when compared to free weights. You probably still won’t be able to lift full out, but you might be able to train somewhat.
Beginners, on the other hand, can benefit tremendously from machines.
When I mention beginners here, I’m mostly talking about folks who have never exercised in their entire life. They might feel inclined to use momentum or other muscles when working with free weights, which ultimately increases the risk of injury and also takes away from the reason we’re doing that particular exercise.
Machines, as I’ve explained, kind of force you into a certain movement pattern. This not only removes momentum and increases safety, but it also certainly “forces” you to focus on a certain muscle.
As time progresses, and this person grows more used to using resistance, they can eventually shift to free weights or heavier machines if needed/wanted.
4. You Can Still Use Them for Some Heavy A*s Weights!
I know what you’re thinking — “But I can use more weights on a barbell?” and that might be true for some of you on some movements. But the reality is there are a lot of machines that can withstand a ton of resistance because they were designed that way.
Firstly, most machines can withstand more than you think. Many professional athletes will add all the weight and resistance bands as well to increase the mechanical tension, and the machines are perfectly fine.
Hammer Strength machines were designed to make use of weight plates, and a Hammer Strength hack squat, for instance, can hold 440 lbs and upwards per side!
Why is this important? We’ll discuss it in greater detail a bit later, but for now, you just have to know that mechanical tension matters when it comes to building muscle. Adding weight or reps/sets is a surefire way of improving your muscle mass.
Bonus benefit: You usually get greater variance between weights compared to most dumbbells and barbells. Barbells can only increase in weight based on the smallest weight plates available (usually 10 lbs), and dumbbells usually increase by 5 lb increments.
Machines often have smaller increments available, meaning you can practice progressive overload a lot easier.
5. Some Machines Just Cannot Be Replaced
Unlike how my ex replaced me in 2 weeks, you’ll struggle to replace some of these machines purely based on their design and mechanics.
Which ones, you may ask?
The adductor machine is literally the best adductor machine in the gym — end of discussion. No other exercise will train the adductors (without training other muscles) like this machine. Not squats, not sumos, not nothing!
Assisted pull-ups can be done with bands, sure. However, they become harder the closer you get to the top (because the stretch runs out). Unlike these, the machine that assists you with pull-ups helps you the same from beginning to end.
This means that you can potentially get better gains from the latter.
Other machines do this as well, but before we start sounding like SkyNet, let’s look at the cons of machines.
3 Cons of Gym Machines
1. Movement Patterns Can Be Compromised
I am 6 foot 4 and 280 pounds. My lifting partner is 5 foot 4 and 220 pounds. How could we possibly fit in the same machine?
That is, unfortunately, a limitation of machines. While locking you in on a certain muscle is great, it can also reinforce wrong movement patterns.
You’ll often see that larger or smaller individuals have to alter machines just to fit! You can see what I’m on about in this video of one of the tallest bodybuilders on the planet, Jamie Johal. He sets the machine to its very lowest, and he has to use pads to lift the weights slightly so he can fit.
This fact does limit the usage of gym machines slightly, and this can teach people the wrong movement pattern, which in time, can lead to serious injury.
2. They Don’t Train Stabilizers
* Note: This is not a flaw for those of you who are professional bodybuilders.
As you may or may not know, there are smaller “stabilizer muscles” in the larger muscle or joints. If you’ve only ever done an incline barbell press, and you do a normal incline, you might notice your arms shaking. Yeah, your stabilizers are spoiled.
It’s important to train these stabilizers, as they keep you safe when doing your regular tasks. Professional bodybuilders might not “care” so much about these because their whole sport is about being muscular — screw safety!
Free weights, of course, do train these stabilizers, making them marginally better.
3. There Are Also Other Limitations
For lack of a better term, other negatives are far too small to list as one subunit. They take up quite a lot of room in the gym, they’re prone to breaking, and while you could load them, you still can’t load them as much as a barbell.
This does put small but significant limitations on these machines. Of course, there are ways around this, such as buying higher-quality machines. But not all gyms will actually spend the money on good quality stuff — as you most likely already know.
What Are Free Weights?
I guess the best way to describe free weights is with a video of bodybuilding legend Ronnie Coleman — Lightweight, baby.
Free weights can actually be described as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and any other weight that provides resistance without using a stabilizing method in and of itself.
That can be hard to understand, I know. For all intents and purposes, we can define barbells and dumbbells as the most commonly used forms of free weights.
Barbells have been around since the 1800s when they were first used in gymnasiums or in circus acts by big and burly strongmen. These had weights fixed to either end of the barbell, and while some of those still remain in gyms, these weights have evolved tremendously over the last couple of years.
Free weights are found in nearly all gyms around the world, and contrary to their machine counterparts, there are entire competitions that revolve around free weights — such as World’s Strongest Man, Powerlifting, and CrossFit.
Can You Get Ripped With Just Free Weights?
Before we can answer this question (once again), let’s rehash what’s needed from you in order to get ripped:
- You have to be in a calorie deficit for an extended period.
- You have to be eating a surplus of protein every day.
- You have to train with some resistance.
- You don’t have to do cardio, but it could help.
- You have to sleep and rest as much as you can.
As you can see, it only requires “resistance.” Now, free weights have drawbacks and benefits, but they provide more than enough stimulus for you to retain or — in the right situation — even build some muscle mass.
4 Pros of Free Weights
1. Overload Capabilities
In the pros of machines list, we mentioned that even though they have limitations, machines can still be overloaded quite a lot. Unfortunately, free weights can be overloaded a whole lot more.
Yes, certain machines can take a lickin’, and yes, with extensions, you could load machines with more weights. But the reality is most gyms have bars that could hold upwards of 1000 lbs, whereas the machines can’t.
This means that you could increase mechanical tension for as long as you damn well please before running into issues. This cannot be said for machines, excluding Hammer Strength machines, of course.
2. Better Movement Patterns
Unlike their machine counterparts, free weights couldn’t give a damn about where your body moves while you use them. This might seem like a bug, but it’s actually more of a feature.
See, this allows you to move freely through space, and when you’re either super big or really strong, you want that. If you’re clangin’ and bangin’ 100s of pounds, you don’t really want to be told where to go … because you might (literally) tear a muscle.
Dumbbells don’t force you into a certain pattern, and they allow you to move freely. Now, there is a drawback to this, and we’ll get into that in a moment. But for the most part, you’re free to do what you want where you want.
3. There’s More Variety
Grab a pair of dumbbells, and I can name 10 different exercises that you could do for your shoulders. How many can you do on the shoulder press machine? One.
Dumbbells and barbells can save you a massive amount of space and money by giving you such a great amount of variety and freedom to use them in different ways.
If you were starting your own gym, free weights (with a bench or two) would create so many opportunities that it almost feels incorrect to compare them to machines.
4. They Train Everything
Unlike the machines you might be using every now and then, weights will train every single aspect of your body — whether you like it or not. This can be seen as a bug by professional bodybuilders, but for the 99% of us who don’t step on stage, this is a good thing.
Free weights are usually compound movements, so you’ll be training your core, transverse abdominals, stabilizing muscles, and so much more. Sure, you might also get this from certain machines, but the chances are low.
The best example is using a chest press machine vs. using a barbell bench press. The latter will train the shoulders and the stabilizing muscles in the shoulders, whereas the former will not.
This is also why a lot of people will start with free weights for their compound movements and then move on to isolation movements, combining free and machine weights.
Wait, you can do both? That can’t be! Wait, no, let’s look at the negatives of free weights before we conclude.
3 Cons of Free Weights
1. I Hope You Have a Lot of Weights
Remember when we noted that machines take up a lot of space? Well, imagine having a pair of dumbbells for every 5 lb weight increase starting at 10 lbs all the way up to 150 – 200 lbs. That’s upwards of 30 dumbbells…
Weights can also take up a lot of room. Unless you’re using adjustable dumbbells (which can be disgustingly expensive), you aren’t getting away without offering up a lot of space. That’s just the reality of the situation, and there isn’t really getting around this.
2. Injury Rates Could Be Higher
Referring back to when we mentioned that free weights would train all parts of the movement chain, you might see an issue here. They’ll train every single part, meaning if your shoulder stabilizers aren’t ready for the weight — well, too damn bad!
It’s quite easy, more so for beginners, to hurt yourself with free weights compared to machines. Machines are a tiny bit more forgiving, and they can usually “let you go” with a niggle more so than a full-on injury.
Another thing to remember is that a machine locks you in place. The chances that your elbow or knee gives way and you get a joint injury are slim.
My one friend was benching 40 lb dumbbells, someone accidentally nudged him, and boom! Torn shoulder muscle. This wouldn’t have happened in a machine. If you’re a total beginner, stick to lighter free weights or machines since they’re slightly safer.
Do you have to use free weights the more experienced you get? Not really, but it could be advantageous, seeing as you can use more weight. That said, some of us don’t need to do this and can keep gaining with lighter weights.
3. Other Factors
Just as with machines, there are quite a few smaller factors that are negatives but not quite big enough to make a whole case against free weights.
- Going really heavy means you’ll require a spotter.
- Your grip will definitely become an issue in pulling movements.
- If you’re taller, at some point, you’ll have back issues, especially on leg day.
- (not really your problem) But they can make a lot of noise (sorry, grandma!)
Some other factors will differ from person to person.
For instance, older individuals will always err on the side of caution and prefer machines. Why? Well, they are slightly safer, and they can still provide a good amount of resistance for those looking to increase muscle size and strength.
Gym Machines vs. Free Weights Conclusion
So, getting back to the question that started this whole argument, which of these two is better for gaining muscle — gym machines or free weights?
Well, depending on who you are, both are beneficial! It’s unusual that you’d ever find an athlete only sticking to one, and most people (gen pop) tend to use both.
Sure, each of these has its benefits, but when it comes to building muscle, you only need the following:
- You need ample calories to ensure an increase in muscle mass.
- You need a decent amount of protein to make sure you build muscle and not fat.
- You require progressive overload via mechanical tension.
- You have to sleep and/or rest enough.
Nowhere does it mention free weights or machines. In fact, the biggest and strongest people on the planet also use both! The caveats come when you start changing the variables of the person doing the exercise.
- Injured individuals should use machines and rehab methods (with free weights) to ensure they recover well. (Though, we’d definitely recommend talking to your doctor first before training while injured!)
- Beginners should shy away from using heavy free weights, but they can do lighter ones.
- Bodybuilders are better off using machines because they only want to hit one or two muscles per exercise.
- If you’re building a home gym, you might find it cheaper to buy free weights.
But what if you need cold hard facts to persuade you?
Well, in July 2020, a study was published under the name “Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels” So what did they find?
“The major finding of this study is that free weight and machine training were equally effective for increasing muscle thickness and strength. These findings do not support our hypothesis that training with free weights would result in greater gains in muscle mass and strength.”
“The second major finding is that the men training with free weights experienced a significant acute increase in free testosterone from before to after workouts.”
So, apart from a tiny bit more testosterone, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t do machines! If you really want that extra test, sleep more, and ditch the beers.
Building a workout program that combines both of these methods of lifting is probably the best way of actually making progress. Sure, some of us don’t have that luxury, but those of us who don’t would still get amazing results doing either to the best of our own abilities.
The biggest factors to focus on are getting enough food, sleeping enough, and getting stronger either by adding more load or doing more reps. Or, in other words, practicing progressive overload via an increase in mechanical tension.
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