Machines vs. Free weights

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  • It's my understanding that free weights are generally considered to be preferable as they don't "do the work for you" as machines sometimes do. I haven't been lifting for very long (4-6 weeks?) and I have recently started using more weight/fewer reps. My question is this: is it more beneficial to keep using the machines, pushing the weight as high as I can and not having to worry about hurting myself, OR does it make enough of a difference that I should start trying free weights with perhaps a slightly lower (read: more controllable) weight?

    I really enjoy pushing myself in terms of the weights used. What I am currently doing is the max weight that still lets me do 3 sets of 5-8 reps before I give out. Before I was doing 3 sets of 10-15 reps and didn't really feel like I was accomplishing much. I'm afraid that if I do this with free weights I may end up twisting or tearing something. Any thoughts?
  • Move away from the machines....

    Free weights teach your body a lot more than just lifting iron. They force you to create a neuron connection to the muscle, with lots of feedback to your brain about balance, control, how far your muscle and joint can move without getting hurt. They are actually safer than machines in that respect.

    There are some great machines, and some exercises that are much better done with free weights.

    The more body parts and joints that are in motions during an exercise, the more effective that exercise will be. For example, a free bar or dumbbell squat is a compound exercise that is far more effective than a leg extension machine. Both work the quads, but the leg extension ONLY works the quads, requires no balance and no movement other than at the knee joint. Much less effective!

  • I second Mel that it's time to transition to free weights for at least some of your exercises. Like Mel said, free weights will protect you from injury both in and out of the gym because you move in a more natural range of motion and strengthen lots of secondary and stabilizing muscles. There are good machines that I use often (lat pulldowns, assisted pullups, rear delts, Hammer strength, for example), but probably 90% of what I do in the gym uses free weights.

    About the rep range - right now you're working in a rep range designed to maximize muscle size (hypertrophy). If size is your goal, you'll want to stay in that 5 - 8 rep range. Being female, you don't have the hormones to get really big, bulky muscles, but this rep range will certainly get you the largest muscles possible.

    If you decide that strength is your goal, you might want to consider moving to an 8 - 12 rep range. Moving up to a 12 - 15 rep range would focus more on strength and endurance. The right range for you just depends on what your goals are. But regardless of the rep range you choose, you're right to push yourself until you give out, as you said.

    However, while you're transitioning to free weights, I definitely recommend that you drop the weight until you've mastered the form. You'll be surprised at the difference between machines and free weights and the amount of stabilization it takes to do a dumbbell chest or shoulder press. You may be strong in one plane of the motion - the one used in a machine - but quite weak in the others that are needed in a free weight exercise. It would be easy to hurt yourself by trying to use too much weight too fast, and we don't want that to happen!

    Pick a light weight and watch your form very carefully to be sure you're doing the exercise correctly. It's helpful to use a mirror to check and see if you're wobbly or shaky or moving off track. If you work out with a friend, it's really helpful to have a spotter when you first start with free weights!

    Good luck and let us know how you do!
  • Great posts MeL and MeG... as usual...

    I just wanted to add that most machines are not configured for women 5'3'' like Meg, Mel and I, but for men, therefore the machine may not be hitting the right muscle at the right angle and you may injure yourself there too...

    Just a thought from the nonPT here... Meg and Mel feel free to correct me if I'm wrong...
  • Totally right, m'dear!
  • Thanks for the tips girls, I think my main block is the intimidation factor - with the machines there are little pictures that tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. It doesn't help that there are 2 "camps" at my gym (probably most others as well). You either fall into the machine camp or the free weight camp. There's a secret handshake that is needed to cross from one to the other. I think there's also a grunting requirement if you want to live on the free weight side.

    OK, so if I learn the secret code what are the 1st 3-4 lifts that y'all would recommend I try incorporating into my routine?
  • about the grunting requirement ... sounds like childbirth sometimes, doesn't it?

    Hmm ... here are a few basic DB exercises that I'd recommend starting with:

    Chest press

    One arm row (for back)

    Shoulder press

    Bicep curls

    Overhead extensions (for triceps)

    Did I forget any good ones, gang?

    I linked them to little exercise videos that will give you an idea of the form. Based on my clients, I'm guessing you'll begin using around 8-10# DBs for chest press, 15# for the rows, 8-10# for shoulder press, 8-10# for biceps and 5# for triceps. But feel free to go up (or down) in weight to meet YOUR needs!

    Be sure to come back and give us a report!
  • Julia,

    In regards to the grunting, I think that's a guy thing. I watched a guy - much stronger than me - leg press the same amount of weight that I lift and he grunted like he was trying to pass a watermelon. Men are just dramatic like that. If they grunt I guess they feel they are working harder whereas women save their grunting for really hard work - Childbirth!

    Also, I have a free weight question. I am able to use the 25# dumbbells for my overhead shoulder press - doing 3 sets of 10 and am ready to move up to 30s. However, I can't do them both at the same time, so this morning I did right arm then left, until I had done 3 sets on each. Does doing each arm seperately take something away from the exercise, mess up form, etc.?

  • Tiki- One arm at a time is a great variation on the exercise because it forces you to use your core muscles to stabilize the rest of your body so you don't topple over.

    I'd add dumbbell squats to Meg's list.

  • Ah, good one, Mel - how could I forget squats?

    Tiki - way to go on the 25s, soon to be 30s!! Color me impressed!

    I've been doing alternating one arm DB chest press and really liking it, though I had to drop my weight by 5#. Have to try it with shoulder presses.
  • on the grunting! I do see some women - mostly in their 20's and working out with a male partner - who feel need to grunt. Weird. Mostly I just make faces. I love all these recommendations, I get so many ideas of new exercises to incorporate into my gym time. My knees have been feeling really good lately that I'm thinking of trying some squats and lunges instead of the machines for these muscles. I also think the captive weights will be better in case my knees fail - I don't want the bar landing on me! :eek
  • Quote:
    I'd add dumbbell squats to Meg's list.
    Anybody got a little video of good form for this one? Those snippets are really helpful. For some reason I was thinking that I would have to be putting plates on a bar and doing all sorts of things like that, duh, I never ever thought about the smaller "single handed" DB's.
  • Here is a dumbbell squat clip:
    Dumbbell Squat

    and a standard free bar squat:
    Free Bar Squat

    Another way to do a dumbbell squats is to hold one dumbbell vertically, distribution the weight on both hands by holding the weight plate. Hold it between your legs, and do squats with the same form as in the video clips.

  • Just thought I'd report back. I took Meg's advice and tried the chest press, one armed row, & overhead extensions (I was going to do the shoulder press too but I couldn't figure out my shorthand notes on how to do it ). The weights given were exactly right. For the tricep move I think I would have been better off with 8lbs but my gym only has 5's & 10's and the 10's made it feel like I might accidentally hyperextend. On the chest press, I didn't feel like I got a very good workout with that weight *except* that was the one move that I had a hard time controlling. You should have seen those dumbells waving around in the air and clunking into each other while I tried in vain to lift in at a slow steady pace. I think I may stick to the machines for that muscle group to keep building while doing the dumbells as well until I can get the stabilizing muscles in good enough shape to switch over completely.

    I can't wait until I can move down the line to the heavier weights. The 5's, 10's & 15's may not be literally pink but there is definitely a pink aura surrounding them.

    Thanks for the advice...
  • Good job, Julia!

    I'd agree that the chest press is the hardest to control of the exercises. And it sure makes you aware of all those stabilizing muscles that aren't getting worked with machines!

    You'll be using those bigger weights in no time ... and it's the best feeling when you can move up.