Whether you’re a newbie in the gym or a veteran of the weight room, there can be some confusion as to which is better for building muscle – free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.) or weight machines?
The Free Weights Vs Machines Argument
The argument for free weights is that they make you engage more muscles through your core and stabilizing muscles. This can stimulate greater overall muscle growth and provides the body with an overall more balanced posture. Weight machines however can be beneficial as well because they allow you to isolate the muscle much more precisely and intensely. This is due to you not having to worry about stabilizing other muscles and focus primarily on the muscle you’re intending to work.
The Negatives of Free Weights and Machines
The negative to primarily using free weights is that sometimes your stabilizer or core muscles give out before the primary muscle is fully worked to the maximum. For example, things like spinal erectors and forearm/grip strength are usually the first to go and can wreak havoc on working your back fully.
Machine weights have their disadvantages too. Since not everyone is the same height or size, machines are not a one size fits all. Things like insertion points where muscles connect may cause your form to vary on these machines and ultimately put body into poor positions mechanically and result in injury.
Either way, both can have their pros and cons. Let’s look at some sample exercises where weight machines can be as or more beneficial than free weights.
#1: Chest Supported Machine Rows
Since the back is already a weak point on so many athletes, utilizing machine weights will help remove muscle recruitment from areas like erector spinae and biceps/forearms. Use this exercise maybe after you’ve hit a heavy set of barbell rows or bodyweight pull-ups when the back has been hit on a big compound lift.
- Get on a chest supported row machine move seat up or down to find right position to where you are pulling the weight in a comfortable motion
- Contract the shoulder blades first and then follow with the arms to finish
- Slowly lower the weight back to starting position and let lats, traps and rhomboids be fully stretched
Sets and Reps: 4 x 10-12
Top Tip: Keep your back arched doing this movement, keeping chest and the lower back slightly stuck out. This will help you to engage the lats first instead of hitting biceps.
#2: Pec Deck Fly Machine
After smashing either a set of barbell bench press or some heavy incline dumbbell presses, your shoulders and other connective muscle are going to be tired. Throwing in a pec deck fly machine exercise will help you to work the pec muscle solely without placing too much stress on shoulders/rotator cuff. Give this a try and your middle chest will be pumped!
- Adjust seat on pec deck fly machine to where your torso is straight and when handles are straight out in front of you it is perpendicular to body
- Focus on keeping the shoulders pinned back and squeezing the weight through middle of your chest
- Slowly lower weight back to starting position making sure to keep constant tension on pecs, not shoulders
Sets and Reps: 3 x 12-15
Top Tip: If you want to smash that upper chest that so many struggle to hit, try leaning forward on this exercise with your back off the machine’s pad. This will enable you at the top of the movement mimicking an incline fly movement.
#3: Seated Shoulder Press
Although this movement will be similar to a military pressing movement, doing these shoulder presses on a machine will enable you to keep a consistent plane of motion which can help to avoid sloppy form when your shoulders may feel tired. Lighten the weight if need be but keep the tempo slow and controlled on these and reap the benefits of blasting your anterior delts.
- Set up machine to where starting hand position is right about chin level
- Press the weight up keeping traps down and not fully locking out at the top by keeping constant tensions on the shoulder muscle rather than the joint
- Slowly lower weight down but stop at eye level then press weight back up
Sets and Reps: 4 x 8-10
Top Tip: On these it’s easy to use your traps as stabilizers even though you’re on a machine. Focus on keeping your traps pinned down by squeezing your lower traps together. This will provide your shoulders to move in an injury-free motion. Although it may seem strange to begin with, keep the form intact to keep your shoulders healthy.
As you can see, machine weights definitely have their place in everyone’s workout regimen. Just because you see your grandma hopping on her circuit of machines every morning doesn’t mean you can’t use it as well to build serious muscle. Stay tuned for following article about use of weight machines for legs and arms!