For whatever reason, in my formative years of lifting (aka high school), free weights were king. Resistance machines were actually looked down on like they wouldn't do the job, or you were less of a man for using them.
Life went on, life got busy, and life got out of shape and lazy. Then, being tired of being fat and lazy, I got back into the lifting world. Resistance machines were there for me every step of the way as I worked back towards heavy free weight!
So, what's the biggest difference between these two different types of gain-makers? Let's take a look!
Weight Machines Can Be Intimidating
I see this happen every now and again, and I used to be guilty of it as well. You get done with your pre-workout exercising, only to wander around the gym and look at each of the machines (not always knowing what in the world it might do) in search of something to get you those long-sought gains.
That tangle of cables, belts, pulleys, levers, and steel looks intimidating and not at all intuitive to use. I still have to look at the diagram, get set, and then look at it again to make sure I don't look like a complete noob on the thing. Dumbbells, by nature, beg to be lifted. To be pressed, curled, and slammed back onto the rack with a satisfying clang! There is no perceived technicality to a dumbbell, but the truth is far from the perception.
When should I use a machine?
Well, the biggest difference between free weights and machines is that machines take your chosen muscle group through the same full range of motion with every single rep. Free weight may differ every rep as muscles tire, your form weakens, or you simply shift weight slightly. This means that when using machines, you're basically using only one muscle group at a time. It's not a good or a bad thing.
For example, you just got done banging out some squats on the rack, and your legs are wasted. Your stabilization muscles need a break before your next exercise, so you hit up the leg curl machine without having to use those other muscles. Another example would be if, like me, you have arm day after chest day. Machines save me from using my sore muscles and help me focus on my arms' individual muscles.
The other thing that I really dig about machines is that you can lift significantly more weight than when using free weights. I can easily do more than my own bodyweight for reps on a machine without fatiguing. However, with free weight, I'm about spent after the first few reps. This is because the machine is supporting the weights instead of your own stabilization muscles. You can focus all of your efforts on one motion and very select muscle groups. So, if you want to feel like a complete bad-A, jump on a machine and push the peg higher than you think you can lift.
Machines may also be the way to go if you're just starting off in the gym. They force you to learn the proper mechanics of each lift until you're ready to tackle the free weight version.
The last item on machines is injury factors. You're much more likely to injure yourself using free weights. On a machine, you're repeating a motion, most often seated. Using free weight, you transfer plates, turn and lift, and perform a myriad of movements while holding excess poundage. Machines are also the right path to take if you're recovering from an injury.
When should I use free weights?
Working out with dumbbells and barbells is called free for a reason! You have a completely free range of motion since you can move the weights in any direction you like. You can add legs to an arm routine, shoulders to front squats, and any combinations that your weight of choice will allow. What this does is allow for your body to strengthen overall by utilizing your stabilization muscles. Thus, improving your overall coordination.
Free weights also help strengthen your understanding of applying strength in real life. Think about it. You usually don't have your back up against something when you need to push something away in real life. So, once your form is locked in, you need to take on some ground-based resistance to break on through.
However, with that greater freedom comes a greater injury risk. You have to control your own form, and for those that are inexperienced or are lifting outside what their body can hold, free weights add an extra layer of danger. Always stay conscious of your form when performing lifts with free weights.
So, machines, if you're just getting into lifting, returning after a long absence, resting muscle groups, or recovering from an injury.
Free weight if you're good on your form, confident in your ability to lift, and want to incorporate more of your body while lifting.
Plus, who wants to wait on that dude trying to hit his Instagram angle in the mirror to get off of the curl machine?