This is always a controversial subject within the fitness industry. I am not really sure why. It really seems like a no brainer to me and I have been writing about it for years. But who am I to say anything?
Let’s see: I have been personal training for 8 years with no injuries to date (knock on wood!), I am a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA, I am currently completing my master in human movement, I was the head strength and conditioning coach for the Queens varsity men’s volleyball team (yes, during their last 2 OUA championships), I own a fitness studio, and I religiously study every manual, blog, and program by the top strength and conditioning coaches in the world in addition to the appropriate peer reviewed scientific journals.
But what would I know?
That’s the feeling I get when I have to answer questions sometimes. I have heard it time and again from clients, potential clients, and random people I meet at events. They spew information at me that they do not understand and they heard from someone who they believe knows what the hell they are talking about. Ha. Rarely is that this case.
And this topic is for some reason a controversy. I cited my qualifications already. So I am not going to bore you with the reasons why one is better than the other. I am just going to TELL you what is better. If you want to debate it feel free to drop me a line. Just make sure you know your stuff first because I really enjoy making people who pretend to know what they are talking about look like idiots.
The answer to the question of machines vs. free weights? Free weights.
Let me define free weights as dumbbells, barbells, logs, rocks, milk jugs, groceries, pots and pans, your kids, your pets, your spare tire, construction materials, tools, briefcases, purses, shoes, and even your own body weight. I could keep this list going all day.
We will simplify it as added weight or resistance beyond what your muscles must do normally with minimal movement. So when you go up stairs, that’s resistance. When you pick up your kids or pet, that’s resistance.
But why the funny list? Look it over. You will note a few things. They may resemble activities or situations you might encounter in life. Funny. Not really, I did that on purpose.
Machines are not ever necessary for your body, they are not safer for your body, and in many instance they are dangerous for your body. Not to mention they are expensive, heavy, not always user friendly, and have limited adaptations beyond their often singular purpose.
So why do we use them? Why are gyms full of them? A few simple reasons.
- It’s just the way gyms have always been designed. Gold’s gym, Venice Beach. The birthplace of the gym, bodybuilding, and exercise machines. They were built by bodybuilder, for bodybuilders, for bodybuilding. No other reason. We began to idolize their bodies and gyms sprang up all over the place promising that if you use these machines and train like these people you will be able to have similar bodies. Ha. Weird, hasn’t happened yet.
- People (and unfortunately some very misguided personal trainers) think they are safer and easier to use. They are not safer. Period. And easy to use? Have you tried to adjust some of these things? Really? Even if you know the proper biomechanical position for your body it can take a while to get it set right to you. Then someone comes along between sets and makes adjustments and you have to do it all over again. Damn it.
- It makes gyms and trainers sales easier. Think about it, they get you hooked on their machines and systems. You don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy them all, you don’t understand how to work them all, and you don’t really understand why you are doing what you are doing. What’s your options then? To stay on paying your membership so you have access to what you think is your best fitness investment and keep making your personal trainer payments because without them you would be hopelessly lost.
Why shouldn’t you use machines? Because they make no sense for your body. Your body was not designed to work one muscle, then move on and work another muscle, and then on to the next and so forth. When was last time you did that picking up groceries, going to the beach, playing with your kids, or participating in a sport?
No, you are designed to work as a smooth coordinated unit. You are your own machine. You don’t want some metal contraption forcing you into positions and angles that you would never encounter in real life. What sense does that make?
And machines are safer? How exactly? The knee extension machine places more strain and stress through your knee joint than most sports do or walking down stairs does. How is that safer than actually playing sports or walking down stairs? And who ever thought it was a good idea to sit on a machine, put on a seatbelt and then lift a huge stack of weights using just your lower back? Don’t we try and teach people never to lift huge amounts of weight using just their lower back?
I could seriously write on all day but I may lose you. Here is what you need to know.
Free weights and bodyweight exercise is not only better for you, but necessary for your health and fitness. It is not more dangerous than machines (in fact it is most often safer) and is much more practical, effective, and affordable than machines.
Anyone that tells you otherwise, well, ask them why. See what they say. Then see if they have a vested interest in them. Like maybe a gym they own that relies on machines? Or a product they are trying to sell you? I am promoting a style of exercise that you don’t need me for and don’t need to come to my gym for.
And check to see if these machine advocates really know what they are doing. Check their background, experience, results, education, and anything else you can think of. Are they experience and qualified? Or did they just get some weekend personal training certificate that is more focused on earning revenue than teaching the art of personal training and human movement.
Or don’t heed a single word I have said. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this: what the heck do I know about this?