The Pros and Cons of Free Weights versus Resistance Machines

Outdoor Workout

Story at-a-glance -

  • Free weights allow for three-dimensional movement, which helps build functional fitness and prevent everyday injuries
  • Machines can be great tools for focusing and developing specific muscles, provided you’re using the machine properly
  • You can easily turn your weight training workout into a high intensity exercise by slowing down your movements; the slower you go, the higher the intensity

By Dr. Mercola

Regardless of your age or gender, you'd be wise to incorporate some form of strength training into your fitness regimen. And it actually gets even more important the older you get. With good muscle tone, you'll be better able to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair, as you age. Strength training also benefits your:

Body composition and gene expression

Blood glucose control and blood lipids

Blood pressure

Bone density

Cardiorespiratory fitness and aerobic capacity

The fitness industry divides exercise into two categories: anaerobic and aerobic. However, fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff and Phil Campbell have pointed out that in order to actually benefit your cardiovascular system, you have to perform mechanical work using your muscles. Numerous studies have demonstrated the superior effectiveness and efficiency of anaerobic high intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training over traditional aerobic workouts. In fact, the latter is one of the least effective forms of exercise.

When it comes to strength training, you have a number of different options. A recent article1 by K. Aleisha Fetters discusses the pros and cons of free weights versus strength machines. Later, I'll also review how to further supercharge your strength training routine by slowing it down, which turns it into a very high intensity exercise.

The Pros and Cons of Resistance Machines and Free Weights

Generally speaking, one is not "better" than the other in all instances. There are benefits and drawbacks to both machines and free weights, and some exercises tend to be more effective when done using one or the other. Hand weights are inexpensive, portable, and readily available for purchase in just about any department store. Keeping them in your living room or office will allow you to knock out a few sets of exercises whenever you have the time.

The benefit of a resistance machine is that it will allow you to focus your mind on the effort, as opposed to the mechanics of the movement. But, unless you have enough space for a machine in your home, you'll need a gym membership. The primary difference between free weights and machines, however, is the fact that when using free weights, you can move in three dimensions: forward, backward, horizontally, and vertically. This is important, because this is how your body normally moves in daily life.

When you use free weights, you therefore end up engaging more muscles, as you have to work to stabilize the weight while lifting it. The drawback is that you're at an increased risk of injury unless you maintain proper form. Machines, on the other hand, are fixed to an axis that will only allow you to move in one or two planes. If used exclusively, this could lead to a lack of functional fitness, which can translate into injuries outside the gym.

Simply stepping off the sidewalk could result in a knee or ankle injury if stabilizing muscles have been ignored in favor of only working your larger muscle groups. On the upside, a machine will allow you to lift heavier weights, and allow you to target specific muscle groups. So the choice is yours. While some have strong opinions about using one or the other, I believe a balanced approach is the best. As noted in the featured article:

"In the end, for overall strength and conditioning, free-weight exercises—especially those that use compound movements—should be the bedrock of any strength-training plan.

Still, machines can be great tools for helping you focus on and develop certain muscles (granted you use them properly). [T]o get the most from the weight room... [start] your workouts with one or more multi-joint compound movements such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. Then, you can use a few carefully selected machines to strengthen any weak spots and craft the physique you want."

Four Strength Machines You're Better Off Not Using

Fitness coach Melissa Edmonds has also weighed in on this topic. In a recent Huffington Post article,2 she lists four ineffective strength training machines that are better replaced with free weights or body weight exercises. This includes:

1. Smith machine squats: By isolating the movement to a few key leg muscles, you end up placing greater stress on your knees. The machine also prevents you from getting maximum benefit from the squatting movement.  When you squat using just body weight or free weights, on the other hand, your entire lower body gets a great workout, as you have to use both your core and legs to stabilize.

2. Abduction/adduction machines: It's a stubborn fallacy that you can spot reduce fat from certain areas or your body, and the abduction/adduction machine is overall ineffective for this purpose.  As noted in the featured article:

"In addition to not reducing the fat on your thighs, this exercise is considered an "isolation movement," making it less effective for an overall body workout. Stick to compound movements (such as squats and lunges) if you want to improve your legs. Compound movements target additional muscular groups and are more effective overall."

3. Abdominal crunch machine: This machine isolates your abdominals and fails to engage your hip flexors. As a result, you will usually end up using your arms, shoulders, and legs to assist, rather than relying on your core strength. In order to effectively train your core, you must incorporate a variety of stabilization, functional, and traditional exercises.

Core exercises, specifically abdominal exercises, must be done in a variety of ranges of motion, in different angles and positions, in order to engage all muscles. Effective exercises include standard crunch with rotation, which incorporates your internal and external obliques; functional work on a stability ball; hanging leg raises; and pushups, which actually work your core and abs if done correctly.

4. Behind-the-head lat pull-downs: In order for this exercise to be effective you need to keep your spine straight and most people simply do not have shoulder joints that are flexible enough to perform this exercise properly. As noted in the featured article, lat pull-downs behind the head can stress your rotator cuff muscles, thereby causing injury. Instead, stick to traditional frontal lat pull-downs.

Seven Phenomenal Strength Exercises

I recently reviewed seven of the best strength-training exercises using free weights or bodyweight, which I'll list again here. For descriptions of how to perform them, please see "The 7 Best Strength Exercises You're Not Doing."

1. Goblet Squat: This is a squat done while holding a weight in front of you (like a goblet), which adds more of a workout for your core and legs.

2. Pallof Press: This "anti-rotation" movement is challenging because you must resist rotation, working your obliques, abs, lower back, glutes, and more.

3. Dumbbell Row: The dumbbell row helps to develop a strong back, arms, and core. Plus, because it works your lats, traps, and rhomboids, it supports proper posture by pulling your shoulders back and helping to stabilize your spine.

4. Push-Up: Push-ups are a deceptively simple functional movement that works your upper-body muscles while engaging your core and allowing you to use the full range of motion in your shoulder blades.

5. Split Squat (Stationary Lunge): This is important because it involves single-leg movements that help minimize training imbalances. Split squats will help to build lower-body strength while improving balance, flexibility, and stability in your hips.

6. Lateral Squat: This is a combination of a lateral lunge and a squat, useful for stretching your groin and inner thighs while also working out your hips, thighs, and trunk.

7. Hip Extension (Glute Bridges/Hip Thrusts): This exercise helps to train your glutes, which are often underutilized if you sit for long periods each day.

Super-Slow Techniques Can Boost Your Fitness Results

I'm a big fan of super slow weight training, as it effectively turns your strength training routine into a high intensity exercise. Super slow strength training may even be superior to HIIT exercises using a recumbent bike or elliptical machine in some regards. For instance, you only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same human growth hormone (HGH) production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique.

The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle. As with any other strength training exercise, you can perform the super-slow technique with hand weights, resistance machines, bodyweight exercises, or resistance bands.

The key to making the either of these super slow techniques work is intensity, which needs to be high enough that you reach muscle fatigue. When the intensity is this high, you can decrease the frequency of your strength training sessions. In fact, the higher your fitness level, the less often you should do these exercises. As a guideline, when you start out, allow your body at least two days to rest, recover and repair between high-intensity sessions, and do not exercise the same muscle groups each time. As your strength and endurance increases, decrease how often you do the sessions, as each one is placing greater stress on your body (provided you keep pushing yourself to the max).

As a rule, avoid doing high intensity exercises more than twice or three times a week. You can enjoy other activities on your off-days, such as swimming, Pilates, yoga, biking, gardening, or whatever other activities you might enjoy.

Comparison of the Super Slow and Super-Super Slow Techniques

Download Interview Transcript

There are two types of super slow techniques—one being even slower than the "standard" super slow technique. The slowest of the two: the "Super-Super Slow" technique, was developed by Dr. Ellington Darden, who also refers to it as "negative accentuated exercises." I have just started this type of strength training and am impressed with its efficiency and the science behind it. The two super slow techniques could be summarized and compared as follows:

Super Slow: In the video above, I demonstrate a hybrid technique with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning you raise the weight to the slow count of four, and lower it to another count of four. Traditionally, it's recommended raising and lowering the weight to a slow count of 10.

Either way, your goal is to have enough weight that you cannot complete more than 12 reps before reaching muscle fatigue, but not so much that you can't complete at least four. Ideally, you will be somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to eight. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not "going" anywhere, for another five seconds or so.

Super-Super Slow: This is only a 1.5-rep exercise. It's done with the same amount of weight as in Super Slow, but instead of raising and lowering the weight to a count of four or 10, you begin with the weight in a raised position. Lower it to a count of 30; raise it to a count of 30; and lower it again to a count of 30, for a total of 90 seconds. It is best to use a timer and do 30 seconds rather than counting. That's it!

All you need is 10 of these 1.5 rep exercises, performed once a week. Once you can comfortably complete the time, you can increase the weight and decrease the time to 20-20-20 seconds, and gradually work your way up to 30 seconds again. I have been using this approach for a few months and really enjoy it.

Intense Exercise Is a Potent Anti-Aging Strategy

While it's never too late to start exercising, the earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards. Having an active lifestyle is really an investment in your future well-being. While diet accounts for the majority of the health benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, exercise can be viewed as a "force multiplier" and leveraging agent. Interestingly, strength training has been found to have a beneficial impact on your gene expression — not only slowing aging but actually returning gene expression to youthful levels in seniors who start using resistance training.

I believe that, overall, high-intensity interval training really helps maximize the health benefits of exercise, while simultaneously being the most efficient and therefore requiring the least amount of time. Super slow strength training gives you both the benefits from weight lifting and the benefits from high intensity exercises, making it a truly optimal workout for most people. That said, ideally, you'll want to include a wide variety of exercises for a well-rounded fitness regimen.

I also strongly recommend avoiding sitting as much as possible, and making it a point to walk more every day. A fitness tracker can be very helpful for this. I suggest aiming for 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day, and this is in addition to your regular fitness regimen, not in lieu of it.