Printer Friendly


Discussions on strength-training invariably end up with a debate on free weights (barbells and dumbbells) versus machines.

Questions, opinions, and personal preferences quickly run amok. But the simple truth is that everything will work well, if you possess the know how.

In our teenage years, we lifted various oddities and tinkered with contraptions that a safety inspector would condemn on sight. At that time (late 60's), there were limited choices, as most of today's equipment wasn't even in the prototype stage. It was truly a matter of trial and error.

This experimentation taught us a valuable lesson -- keep an open mind.

Today, the choices are bountiful. Sure, some of the cheaply manufactured equipment isn't worth a second look, but everything deserves a first look.

Allow us to do the following: (1) examine some of the advantages of both free weights and machines, (2) discuss how the body responds to various training modes, and (3) take a look at some unconventional pieces of equipment.

Free Weights

Barbells and dumbbells are great tools that have been around in one form or another for centuries. They offer several advantages:

1. Everyone can use them, regardless of body type or size. As long as appropriate supervision, spotting, and instruction are available, they can be used safely and efficiently.

2. They offer great diversity in exercise choices. They can be used for myriad pressing and pulling movements.

3. Unlike machines, they are not guided by rods, cams, chains, straps, or a leverage system (hence, the term "free" weights), and therefore require the lifter to balance the load. This enables the lifter to stimulate both the targeted muscles and the surrounding musculature, which may come into play for the balancing aspect. However, the rate and level of the recruitment of these assistant muscles are still speculative.

4. They are a more affordable option for high school coaches and provide more bang for the buck when outfitting the weight room.


They offer several advantages over free weights:

1. Critical extensions such as hip adduction/abduction (inner and outer thigh/hip), leg extensions, leg curls, and neck work (forward flexion, lateral flexion, and extension) require machine intervention or manual resistance.

2. Many machines provide variable resistance, which means they are designed to automatically vary the resistance with the changes in biomechanical leverage. Simply put, in positions of less biomechanical leverage, the machine furnishes a lower level of resistance. In positions of greater biomechanical leverage, the machine provides a higher level of resistance.

This built-in feature supplies the targeted musculature with the appropriate resistance level throughout the strength curve of the exercise. This is one of the most prominent selling points of machines.

3. In many instances, machines can target and accentuate muscles more efficiently than free weights can. Most machines are designed to place an emphasis on a particular area -- in either a single-joint or multi-joint fashion -- and to reduce the synergistic effect (i.e., calling upon assistant musculature) that is common with free weights. This forces the targeted musculature to perform the brunt of the work.

4. We have found that machines are a necessity in the post-injury and rehabilitation situations. In conjunction with the sports medicine staff, our philosophy is to prudently work around injured areas with resistance training.

This maintains the strength and integrity of the surrounding muscular compartments, while providing some neuromuscular stimulation to the injured area through an occurrence called indirect transfer -- a neural crossover of strength from an exercised limb to the opposite limb.

If, for instance, the left knee is injured and direct strength work is contraindicated, you can attain some strength benefit for the injured side by performing exercises for the opposite leg (e.g., leg extensions, leg curls, and leg presses).

The injured area will also benefit from performing work for the proximal (hip) and distal (ankle) joints on the same side. This can be accomplished with exercises such as hip flexion/extension, adduction/abduction, and dorsi (upward) and plantar (downward) flexion of the foot.

Note: It is important to consult with the athletic training/sports medicine staff or the athlete's primary care physician before initiating any rehabilitation procedures in the weight room.

Muscular Adaptations

Some people will argue that one mode (free weights or machines) is superior to the other in building muscular size, strength, and power. However, well-established principles in neuromuscular physiology fail to lend credence to these notions.

Muscles respond favorably to the resistance applied to them, regardless of the origin. As the muscles adapt to a given resistance, you must: (1) increase the reps, (2) increase the resistance, or (3) increase both.

This is known as the Progressive Overload Principle. It can be achieved with free weights, machines, sandbags, cinder blocks, or paint buckets filled with cement. What cannot be substantiated is the perception that muscles possess an innate cognitive ability that enables them to discern between various resistance modes and responding differently to each.

It also doesn't matter whether you're standing, sitting, or lying on a bench while lifting -- if the muscles are properly overloaded, you'll achieve the desired results.

Photos 1-4 illustrate the military press being performed with four different pieces of equipment. The shoulder complex and triceps are stimulated equally and effectively with each modality.

Odds and Ends

In addition to a bevy of traditional free weights and machine modalities, we have several pieces of equipment that might be mistaken for some of the weapons Kirk Douglas used in the movie "Spartacus."

Much of the inspiration for them came from the very popular ESPN "Strongman Contests."

The "log bar" (Photo 3) is used for a variety of chest and shoulder pressing movements.

For grip strength (hand and forearm), our players will walk varying distances carrying the "farmer's walk bars" (Photo 5) and use the "hammer bar" (Photo 6) for curling movements.

The "woodshed sled" (Photo 7) is great for developing the hips and legs, in addition to providing a good cardiovascular workout.

We recommend that you avoid handcuffing yourself to a set ideology or antiquated prejudices when it comes to equipment choices.

Rather than dwelling on the inherent negatives in any type of equipment, we suggest that you accentuate the positive qualities.

This approach will permit you to experience the best of everything, while keeping the workouts fresh and challenging for your athletes.

Strength training is hard, demanding work. A nice assortment of tools will reduce some of the mental tedium and interject a little fun into the process.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:free weights versus machines for strength training
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:FUMBLE.
Next Article:Go for Two With the Polecat!

Related Articles
An open letter to strength coaches.
Barbells vs machines: balancing a weighty issue.
Under questioning.
Strength Training.
A beautiful mind: Arthur Jones, the man who invented the nautilus machine and revolutionized strength training. (Person to Person).
Weighing your options: what every prospective strength training facility should know. (Facility Focus).
Q&A Strength/Conditioning: Part II.
Smart training with dumbbells.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters