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The Great Debate: Machines or Free Weights?

Posted Feb 08 2011 7:00am
We had a debate team in high school, but I was never on it. (At least I think we did. Maybe I'm thinking of the quiz bowl team. Regardless...) I truly enjoy a decent debate. Some call them arguments. Let me clarify that it's not the I'm-right-you're-stupid kind of argument, or the tear-inducing hurtful kind that I like—it's the argument between two people with opposing views, two mature people who can hash out a topic while learning from each other. That's the kind of argument I like. One side versus another. Here's what I think, now tell me what you think. Discussion ensues.

In the fitness world, one such debate is ongoing and I came across it yet again on Facebook this morning. Oxygen posted the following

The response has been steady, and most people admit to using both. And also to favoring free weights over machines. One person said that "machines are for horrible form." Clearly she sticks to free weights. I disagree with her, so I shared my view. Call me a participator. And then I thought to myself, perhaps I should dive a little deeper as I'm sure some of you are wondering whether machines are as good as free weights (and vice versa). In a nutshell, my opinion is this: both are great. Whether you use machines or free weights, if you want to achieve specific results, you really just have to make sure the operator isn't in error. Yeah, you. You're the operator! I know, I know—that seems like a cop-out answer. But it's the honest truth. Let me break it down with some pros and cons.

MACHINES
PROS 1) Detailed labels indicate proper set-up and use, which makes machines super friendly.
2) Proper form is somewhat forced.
3) Drop sets are made easier by a pull-and-plug pin (or maybe a knob) in the weight stack.
4) Machines are often set up in a circuit, so it can be easier to piece together a workout.
5) Movement is often made in the same plane of motion, which makes machines great for individuals
    working with or recovering from an injury.
CONS 1) There is only one bicep curl machine, and someone might be using it.
2) If you slack, the machine does some of the work for you. And that's not cool.
3) Nine times out of ten, you're only working one muscle group at a time.
4) If a machine is broken, someone has to fix it before you can use it.

FREE WEIGHTS
PROS 1) They're grab and go.
2) You can work more than one muscle group in more than one plane of motion, which ultimately
    streamlines your workout.
3) With you in control, you are forced to engage more of your core.
4) More than one person can be doing the same exercise at the same time. You know, since we all lift
    different weights. No more waiting for that bicep machine to open up.
5) Since they are solid, free weights don't break as easily. If ever.
CONS 1) It's easier to break form when your body is moving freely.
2) There aren't any user-friendly labels outlining specific exercises.
3) If you want to work more than one muscle group, or if you want to perform drop sets, you'll need to
    set up a variety of different weights in front of you—which leads to greater cleanup.
4) And speaking of cleanup, people don't always put weights back so you might have to
    hunt for the poundage you need.

While I'm sure you can add to the lists above, what it really boils down to is your ability to respond to whatever method of strength training you choose. It takes hard work, and it takes honesty on your part. You can slack just as easily using free weights as you can using the machines. But you can make significant strides on both if you use proper form. And also if you pay attention to the muscles you're currently working. They will always let you know when something is too easy (and also when it's too hard). Essentially, machines aren't only for beginners, just as free weights aren't only for bodybuilders. Stick to one, and you're missing out on half the tools at your gym! And well, that just sounds boring—so mix it up!

Question: What's your take on the machines-or-free-weights debate? Do you prefer one over the other, or do you mix it up?

REMINDER! Don't forget to enter my Green Giant giveaway! You just win a prize pack full of goodies. (Contest ends at midnight EST on Friday, February 11, 2011).
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