All it takes is a glance inside the average gym to see that the old-fashioned barbell has made a comeback. Thanks in part to the explosion of CrossFit (not to mention the ripped-to-shreds bodies kicking butt at the popular CrossFit games), people are realizing that the basic barbell—and a basic set of dumbbells—are still the ultimate muscle-building, body-shaping tools.
Gyms have responded, re-configuring valuable floor space to once again prioritize free weights while shuffling less “functional” machines into the background—or out the back door.
But is this pushback against machines warranted? While basic free weights are priority number one (and I judge any gym primarily by how heavy the dumbbells go), machines still have their rightful place in any muscle-building program.
“From a hypertrophy standpoint, the benefits of machines counteract the disadvantages of free weights, and vice versa," says Brad Schoenfeld, assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and author of The Science and Development of Hypertrophy. "Machines can promote functional improvements, and this has been displayed over and over in studies." What this means that getting stronger in a range of motion, even a fixed range like that offered by a machine, can transfer to strength improvement in other contexts, such as other exercises or sporting drills.
But before I make the case for machines being a part of your exercise routine, lets clarify terms. Free weights include barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls—basically anything you can pick up that fights against gravity.
Machines refer to equipment where you sit and then push or pull the weight through a fixed range of motion. A cable pulley apparatus would reside somewhere in the middle.
The big knock on most machines versus free weight exercises (apart from cost and that they take up a lot of room) is that they don’t recruit the many small stabilizer muscles that help you maintain balance in space. As such, they don’t transfer as well to the real world or the playing field and are deemed not “functional.”
But is failing to recruit the stabilizers such a bad thing? For athletes, perhaps. But for folks gunning for maximum muscle (hypertrophy), it’s a different story.
“By taking out the need for muscle stabilizers in free weight exercises, you can put more focus on a given aspect of a muscle and enhance the hypertrophic response,” says Schoenfeld. In other words, if your goal is to isolate as much focus and tension on a specific muscle (hello, bodybuilding) then this is a potential positive, not a negative.
However, there are other contexts where machines are an excellent option, too. Due to their inherent stability, machines are significantly safer than free weight exercises, especially those that require explosive movement (cleans or snatches), support heavy loads against gravity (barbell curls), or moving through space (lunges). This makes machines an excellent choice for the elderly, those with special needs, or people who are just new to resistance exercise.
It also means that machines are an excellent choice when recovering from injury. Suppose you have a serious low back injury but still want to train your lower body. If you limit yourself to free weight exercises (squats, deadlifts) you’re basically out of luck. The lower back is required to contribute throughout these exercises.
However, you can sit on a leg extension machine and effectively isolate the quads with nary a hint of low back fatigue. No, they’re not as effective, but they’re better than nothing. Similarly, machines can play a key role in the rehab process. Rehab patients often have a limited range of motion (ROM) and have to avoid the starting or terminal part of an exercise’s ROM, which is easier to do with a machine.
Some advanced equipment even allows for eliminating the concentric (lifting) phase or eccentric (lowering) phases of a lift. Try doing that with a barbell or dumbbell.
Finally—and this is my favorite thing about machines—most machines offer a measure of control that allows you to truly go all out in terms of effort or intensity; one that simply can’t be matched safely with free weights.
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For example, take the basic barbell bench press. If you open up a can of whup ass and go to failure (the point at which can’t perform another rep), you risk getting pinned by the weight or even tearing a pec.
However, with a chest press machine you can safely extend a set well past failure—by performing partial ROM reps, taking a mini-rest between reps (a rest-pause set) or quickly reducing weight without resting (drop sets). All without compromising body position or even getting the assistance of a partner.
Now, this is something only an advanced trainee would need to consider, but when every ounce of new muscle is a battle, it’s worth exploring.
To wrap up, when it comes to free weights versus machines, it’s not an either/or proposition. And while there’s no substitute for a barbell and dumbbells, machines still have their place, especially if you’re injured, getting older, or just need a change of place.
Still not convinced? Just head to Gold’s Gym Venice most any morning. Odds are, you’ll see Arnold working out—on machines. That’s good enough for me.
Bryan Krahn, CSCS, is a fitness writer and online coach specializing in physique transformation for normal Joes.
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