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Sharp Health News

Ask the expert: exercise machines or free weights?

March 4, 2016

Free weights vs. machines

Cliff Bardelli, a certified personal trainer at the Sewall Healthy Living Center at Sharp Coronado Hospital, works with a client.

Not long ago, weight machines were considered the best way to train. People have since realized that many exercise machines, while helpful for improving strength and muscle quality, tend to neglect many important core and stabilization muscles. This is not to say that machines don’t have a place in your workout routine, only that there is a necessity to weigh the pros and cons of each when considering your goals in the gym. 

Weight machines: pros 
  • Easy to learn — most machines have pictures demonstrating their use. 
  • Ability to isolate muscle groups — this can be beneficial to those who have a solid foundation and are looking to strengthen specific muscles or movement patterns.  
  • Allows you to train without assistance of a spotter — if you are just beginning to work out, machines can help you safely improve strength without the worry of lifting a weight you’re not ready for. 
  • Beneficial for rehabilitation — people at very low levels of fitness or who are recovering from injury can use machines to target muscles at low intensities to safely work around injuries. 
Weight machines: cons 
  • Non-functional — although machines can help you get stronger, they cannot train balance and functional human movement very well, which won’t translate as much into daily activities or athletics. 
  • Neglects small stabilizing muscles — because machines isolate muscle groups, the stabilizing muscle groups surrounding the joints and in the core don’t work as hard, running the risk of injury. 
  • May indirectly cause injury — because machines often limit you to one exercise, you continuously do the same movement pattern, which can lead to an overuse injury. 
  • Machines are always in use — because most people are more comfortable using machines, they tend to be occupied more often, forcing you to wait around wondering what to do instead. 
Free weights: pros 
  • Highly functional — free weights and body-weight exercises have greater carryover to how the body moves in real life regarding daily activities and athletics. 
  • Allow for full range of motion — because you’re not locked into a specific movement pattern, your body is able to move more naturally against the resistance. 
  • More demand placed on stabilization muscles — this keeps your joints healthier and your core stronger overall. 
  • More muscles targeted per exercise — if you’re short on time, or simply don’t want to be in the gym for very long, free weights are the way to go. 
  • More variation — machines often limit you to one exercise. Free weights will allow you to do multiple exercises with just one or two dumbbells almost anywhere in the gym. 
Free weights: cons 
  • Takes time to learn proper technique — free-weight exercises are complex and require more attention to detail. Having a trainer show you proper form can be valuable for beginners in order to avoid injury. 
  • Lifting heavier weight may require a spotter — many free-weight exercises can be difficult to improve upon without a spotter or trainer to assist you as your muscles fatigue. There is nothing wrong with asking for help in the gym, and safety should never be sacrificed. 
My recommendations 
For my own personal training programs, I prefer to use free-weight exercises whenever possible, focusing on multi-joint movements like pushing, pulling, squatting and properly lifting objects off the ground. However, I often use machines to help clients work through injuries and strengthen specific weak points that may be lagging. 

At the Sewall Healthy Living Center, we offer both free weights and machines. Each of our certified personal trainers has more than 5,000 hours of experience and will work with you to develop a customized exercise program that uses a combination of the two. At the end of the day, the type of training you do should always focus on your personal needs and goals, and most of all, be fun for you.

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