Lighten Up: Man vs. machine

Cathleen Kronemer

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT

One of the first questions I ask a prospective client, in advance of designing his or her workout plan, is whether there is a preference for using free weights or the machines for strength training and overall fitness. I am usually answered with another question: “What’s the difference?” There seems to be a running debate among even the upper echelon of athletes, so it is worth exploring the value of each.

Clients who are new to the gym may often benefit from starting with a machine to train various body parts. The biggest advantage I have found with machines is that they are designed to work specific muscles. As such, they put the body in a position such that the only muscle being worked is the one pictured on the machine’s label. The client’s body is stabilized, and there is no risk of “cheating” by having another muscle group “help out” as fatigue sets in. Many clients who tell me they have a weak core prefer to train in this fashion, until such time as they can build up their core strength and balance. Even advanced athletes sometimes prefer to use machines. If a very heavy lift is being attempted and there is not a spotter nearby, it’s always safer to use a machine rather than risk injury with free weights.

Free weights do have advantages as well. Strength training in this fashion forces the client to engage secondary and often even tertiary muscle groups when executing a lift, an added bonus in my opinion! Having a stable core and strong sense of balance is advantageous before lifting a significant amount of weight with dumbbells or a bar. Free weights often allow for a greater range of motion, and the ability to achieve a slightly greater contraction of the muscle. I find that dumbbells allow for a greater degree of variety in designing exercises, which helps to alleviate boredom, the number one reason many individuals abandon the gym.

However you choose to train, safety is key, so be sure to consult a trainer or knowledgeable friend before attempting to challenge yourself! Pump away and have fun!