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In most gyms people are confronted with two main choices for strength training:
Free weights - barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells
Weight machines - leg curl and extension, lat pull-down, cable row, etc.
Is one style of weight training better than the other?
The answer, as with most questions in fitness, is not as simple as yes or no. Each of these methods for building strength and muscle size and endurance has advantages and disadvantages.
To choose the best workout for your clients, or to use the best mix of free and machine weights, you need to understand how they differ. You need to understand what each has to offer and the limitations of each one.
Of course, as a trainer you know that the most important thing of all is that your clients get any type of strength training. The benefits are big:
Increased bone density
Improved body composition
Faster weight loss
Easier weight maintenance
So, when you're getting a client into strength training, do you go with machines, free weights, or both? To some extent, let your client's interests guide the choice, but it's also important to consider what's best for their goals and individual limitations or abilities.
We'll help you sort it out by taking a look here at what's good and bad about both free weights and weight machine training.
Free weights are the undersung heroes of the gym. Machines are big and flashy, the supermodels in the weight room, while the barbells and dumbbells are much easier to overlook. There are many excellent reasons to give free weights a second look, though, and several ways they can be superior to machines.
On the other hand, weight machines have a lot to offer, and there are times when it makes more sense to use them. It's important to make some unbiased comparisons of free weights to weight machines so you understand which one is better to use in a particular situation or for a specific goal.
Some people in the gym consider barbells and dumbbells old fashioned. But if you always turn to machines before weights, it's time to take a second look at the advantages of this old stand-by equipment:
Free weights are less expensive and take up less storage space. They may be more practical in a home gym.
They are more versatile. You can do an exercise to hit just about any muscle with this simple equipment.
Free weights help develop greater power, as compared to machines.
Working out with free weights is a more efficient way to hit most fitness goals, including increasing strength and muscle size, changing body composition, and weight loss.
The exercises you do with weights better mimic neurological patterns of actual fitness and sports skills than those you can do with a machine.
Free weights recruit more of the smaller, helper muscles.
To learn more about the benefits of hitting a muscle group more than once per week, check out this ISSA blog post.
Free weights aren't perfect. There are a few ways in which you may be at a disadvantage by only working out with barbells and dumbbells:
Changing weights on barbells and dumbbells can be time-consuming and potentially a hazard if they are not secure and slide off during an exercise.
Using free weights requires a decent amount of space. This can be a safety issues if you have several people using weights in a too-small space.
It is not always possible to completely isolate a muscle with free weight exercises.
Weight machines can be useful if you have access to them. And, it may be easier to get hesitant clients interested in strength training with machines as compared to free weights. Here are a few other pros of weight machines:
Certain machines are much better at isolating a single muscle or group of muscles for the purpose of overloading it.
Machines can make more efficient use of space in a gym where there are many people working out at the same time.
Working with machines can be faster. Changing the load is usually more efficient and quicker.
For novices at weight training, with a proper introduction and guidelines, machines can be safer.
Machines are flashier and your clients may be more drawn to them than to the free weights, but there are some significant disadvantages of sticking with weight machines only:
The movements you do with a machine are not as natural as those done with free weights. They are not functional movements.
It's more difficult to recruit stabilizer and helper muscles with machines.
Many machines do a poor job of accommodating people who are shorter or taller than average.
The repetitive motions used when working out with a machine can lead to overuse injuries.
Most weight machines are specialized, which means you need multiple machines to get a full workout.
Weight machines can be cost-prohibitive, even for many gyms.
The efficiency and quality of a workout on a machine can be misleading for users who are not fitness experts.
High-speed weight training for power is nearly impossible to do with a machine.
Check out this ISSA blog post on how to recruit type IIa muscle fibers to improve power, speed, and strength.
It's worth noting that free weight exercises and weight machines are not the only options for strength training. Unless your clients have very specific goals, it's always a good idea to introduce variety and make sure they hit all muscles in different ways.
Exercises using body weight only can be a good way to work up to lifting, either with free weights or machines. Resistance bands can be used in the same way, but they can also be used along with free weights to add difficulty and improve the efficiency of workouts.
Bodyweight exercises have some advantages and disadvantages, just like any other type of strength training. One important disadvantage is that this style of training is limited. With machines and free weights you can add extra weight as you get stronger.
One of the best uses for bodyweight training is with clients new to strength training. It's a safe way to ease into lifting and gives you a chance to teach your clients good form. When they get stronger and have the form down, then you can add in weights. Some other important benefits of bodyweight exercises include:
Bodyweight training is accessible and inexpensive for anyone.
You can do cardio and strength training with body weight only by increasing speed and adding plyometric moves.
Bodyweight exercises are functional movements and improve core strength.
Bodyweight movement improves balance.
Some examples of effective and efficient bodyweight exercises include squats, pushups, planks, lunges, glute bridges, and burpees.
Another way to train for strength is by using the resistance in an elastic band. Like bodyweight training this kind of workout is accessible and inexpensive. It's also easy to scale up and down if you have a variety of bands with different resistance levels.
Resistance bands are useful for clients with injuries or who are going through physical therapy after surgery. The workout can be much gentler than with free weights or machines, and band movements are easier on the joints.
Unlike free weights, bands can be used safely while working out alone. There is no need for a spotter and no risk of dropping heavy weights on your feet. Bands can be a good way to get your clients to do additional strength training at home for these reasons.
For your clients who are really interested in taking strength training with free weights up a notch, resistance bands make a great addition. Adding bands to exercises like squats and bench presses adds to the difficulty and can actually double muscle strength and hypertrophy gains as compared to using weights alone.
As with so many things in fitness, the answer is not definitive. As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to using free weights and weight machines. The advantages may seem to come out on the side of free weights, but this doesn't mean there is no place for machines in the gym, in your personal workouts, or for your clients.
The bottom line is that as a trainer you have the knowledge and experience to decide when to use each type of strength training to match a client's abilities and goals. For an overall strength workout, dumbbells may be the best choice. But if you have a bodybuilding client looking to isolate specific muscles, put him on a machine. Add in resistance bands and bodyweight exercises as needed and you have several great ways to train your clients and help them meet their strength goals.
If you're really interested in digging deep into the world of strength training and weights, check out the ISSA's comprehensive course on Bodybuilding Specialist.
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