In this article we will discuss Gym Machines VS Free Weights, and the substantial differences – in terms of functional profit, therefore useful results – between the use of isotonic machines and cables, and free weights (especially dumbbells and barbells), in strength training and hypertrophy.
In another of our article we compared the performance of aerobic (free-body) outdoor activities with indoor activities based on the use of fitness spots, in cardio-vascular training and for slimming – not for athletic preparation of specific disciplines. In summary, although outdoor activity is potentially more profitable from a functional point of view than that practiced inside gyms with aerobic machines – even those with high electronic technology – both have advantages and disadvantages that can subjectively determine the preference / choice of one or the other method.
The training of strength and hypertrophy seems to have much stricter requirements.
Gym Machines VS Free Weights
Comfort and Training
The evolution of engineering technologies in design has led more and more, even in weight training, to the practice of a very “comfortable” muscle work.
This does not mean – or rather, should not “should” – that their use is able to reduce the level of fatigue. It is common for a similar misunderstanding to occur.
The impression – that any experienced personal trainer can confirm – is that users engaged only in using isotonic machines are less likely to achieve high intensity – while the goal is exactly the opposite.
Guided Movement: Advantage or Disadvantage?
From the technical point of view, what immediately catches the eye is the pre-established range of articular mobility imposed by the tool, and the path of the gesture that establishes a priori the path of movement. In reality, therefore, it is the person who adapts to the trajectory of the machine and not vice versa.
This characteristic is not, to tell the truth, a causal fact; by limiting the movement and choosing in which position to express the ROM (range of movement) work, a guided movement is imposed that:
- does not allow incorrectness in the form – even if, as we will see, there is no universal form;
- stabilizes the articulation (function normally borne by the accessory muscles) – useful especially for those who complain about certain functional problems.
That said, one cannot deny the total neglect of the biomechanical individuality of these instruments. Sometimes, the strong limitation of movement leads to the opposite effect, i.e. incorrect execution or negative stress on tendons and joints.
Let’s take an example to better clarify the issue; let’s compare free squat and leg press – leg press, horizontal or oblique, chain, cable or manual loading.
Leg press is often recommended as an alternative to squat, especially when there is no possibility to practice squatting due to various problems, such as muscle retraction, joint fixation, instability, etc..
This choice is motivated by the search for a more controllable gesture, but regardless of these problems. Despite the inability to perform a movement, in fact, in the leg press this will be carried out at the expense of joint physiology.
Even if the ankles cannot flex dorsally which obviously hinders the squatting in squatting – in the leg press, the footplate would still descend, forcing a non-physiological dorsal flexion of the ankle. The same goes for a rigidity of the lumbosacral tract; the descent of the platform would cause a retroversion of the pelvis, therefore a non-physiological and forced flexion of the hips.
The eventual painful symptomatology can also determine a collateral articular compensation, leading to the onset or aggravation of other discomforts – to go from squat to press for the difficulty in the lumbosacral tract and to end up with a lumbago is not the best strategy.
We could say it, therefore, that from an articular point of view, even isotonic machines can create problems, if not properly managed – if you do not enjoy good musculoskeletal flexibility.
This problem is almost non-existent in using cables with adjustable pulleys, which still ensure the isotonicity of the machines, but do not constrain movement and leave the user free to correct themselves.
Strength and Hypertrophy
Let us now try to understand, in terms of functionality, pure strength and hypertrophy, which of the two systems can be more profitable.
Reaching muscle failure alone
We start by specifying that the use of free weights imposes an expression of variable force because of the physical laws that govern their displacement. Cables and isotonic machines, which are called in this way precisely because they avoid this problem, require more or less the same force throughout the entire range of movement. This is normally considered an advantage, because it facilitates the management of repetitions and the achievement of muscle failure even without a spotter (training partner).
Instability and Training Load
Using free weights leads to instability.
The fact of maintaining balance and managing an overload, for example, on the shoulders as in squat, requires the body to continuously maintain its correctness of movement using the other muscles – called stabilisers – which fix the joints. This leads to greater nervous, central and peripheral, but also energetic and metabolic commitment. One could say that, compared to exercises with isotonic machines, those with free weights are globally more functional, complete and stimulating the complex expression of strength.
The muscles of the spinal column are isometrically stressed to maintain balance on the various planes of space, and this helps to increase the ability of the “postural” muscles to perform their function as protectors of the spine. The ankles are not fixed but free to move and the proprioceptive capacities of the ligaments of the foot are stressed importantly, even better if you practice squat without shoes. All this does not happen in the leg press even though, from a muscular point of view, for the thighs, the activation is very similar – depending on how the feet are positioned.
Old-fashioned bodybuilders, as well as weightlifters, athletic sprinters, rugby players and all athletes are well aware of the importance of performing squat as a muscle-building and strength training exercise, along with the ground break, bench press, pull-up and military press. These exercises primarily involve large muscle groups and significantly activate the secretion of anabolic hormones and increase the joint stabilisation and proprioception capacities of the entire body.
To consolidate this statement, just compare free squat to the Smith Machine (multi-power); those who are used to using the latter will hardly know how to handle a free squat.
The same applies to machines like:
- Chest press compared to the classic bench press in a flat bench, with barbell or dumbbells; the instability that creates the work with barbell or dumbbells puts the subject in a position to use a much lower load than the chest press;
- Shoulders press machine compared to the military press (slow forward); the destabilization that creates the work with free weights puts a strain on the ability of the shoulder fixers who are forced to contain the joint to allow movement by creating a functional adaptation that involves an increase in strength and muscle growth;
Comparisons between exercises with free weights and machines could go on for dozens of exercises, and the list could also be boring.
Is the use of cables more similar to isotonic machines or free weights?
The cables are in the middle between free weights and isotonic machines.
They do not impose a real defined trajectory, and the load with pulleys and variable angles imposes constant resistance at all points of movement.
The cables are more functional than a machine, but different from handlebars and rocker arms, which require an expression of variable force.
Especially as the goal is muscle isolation, particularly in hypertrophy protocols and without spotters, constant tension is to be considered advantageous.
At the end of the speech what matters is to understand that the standardization of a movement that imposes a machine, and the fact of making the machine work for us on stability, is comfortable but it is not very functional for muscle growth or strength. As far as cables are concerned they can be very useful in solo training.
In conclusion, only despite training with free weights can the maximum result be achieved in terms of: increased release of anabolic hormones, increased muscle strength, increased capacity of stabilising structures, increased proprioceptive ligament capacity, densification of connective structures.
This does not mean that using only isotonic machines and cables is not possible to achieve results, but they will be inferior compared to free weight.
Remaining in the world of bodybuilding, it is enough to observe all the great giants of this sport to understand that they dedicate a large part of their training to multi-joint exercises with free weights. Not to mention the power lifters who are almost unfamiliar with fitness machines.
The most correct choice, even if a real deal does not exist, could be to:
- structure the training based first on multi-joint exercises with free weights such as squat, take-off, bench press, military press and pull-up;
- use cables in the search for muscle failure without spotters, and isotonic machines when you want to grind a lot of repetitions to reach that muscle pump that creates that blood collection in the muscle important for a good tropism, then growth;
It is unnecessary, therefore, to reason extremist and assert that machines are useless, but it is necessary to keep in mind that the isotonic machine, classic, converging mono lateral symmetrical or other type, is a fitness training tool that must be used with criteria to bring the benefits.
There are is isotonic equipment on the market on which variations from subject to subject in the mobility’s modulation range are possible. This is very interesting, especially for those individuals who have strong mobility limitations where, therefore, it is possible to work safely by setting individual movement limits.
In this way, even with functional limitations, it is possible to train certain functional groups of muscles, which will gradually be ready for the practice of the big exercises, provided that the training programme includes specific times for increasing joint mobility and muscle flexibility, but this is another matter.
One should always try to educate the subject to work with large multi-joint movements with free weights, or as mentioned before, after a short period of work on the machines, in case of forced to work with limited range. In particular, this is emphasized in athletes for whom a good 90% of the work should be done with free weights.