When I’m wandering around in the gym post-cardio, trying to figure out how I’m going to go about strength training, I tend to alternate between hitting up the weights machines and working with the free weights. I’m going to tell you the honest truth: I choose between them based on my mood (or TBH whichever area of the gym is the emptiest at the time).
A lot of people I know actually shy away from the weights machines though, because they can be intimidating and not intuitive to use. Every time I sit down on one, I personally have to check out the illustrated instructions to find out what position I should be in and how it functions. Hence why I decided to ask trainers how to properly navigate these machines, and when to actually choose them over dumbbells based on your fitness goals.
The main difference? “The machines typically take your body through the range of motion—from the starting point through to the end point, a machine will take you through the same line of motion with each and every repetition,” says Phil Timmons, program manager at Blink Fitness. But there’s a lot more that differs between those machines and your regular dumbbells.
When to use weights machines
First of all, know that while the two weight-lifting options do essentially the same thing, there are actually noticeable differences when it comes to how your body maneuvers. “While strength training with machines and with free weights both have their benefits, there are a few major differences to note before deciding which one to use,” says Vince Sant, lead trainer and co-founder of fitness platform V Shred.
The biggest one to note? How many muscles you’re actually using. “When it comes to machines, the biggest difference is the lack of other muscles used,” he explains. “This isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. Let’s say after a round of squats, your legs and all those stabilizer muscles you used are a bit fatigued. Now you can go do some hamstring curls without having to use those other muscles again.” Another example would be like if you’re at the gym even though you’re super sore in your upper body. You can simply use a weights machine to knock out some bicep curls without having to use the rest of your upper body, because the weights machine targets only a select few muscles. It definitely comes in handy.
Another perk of the weights machines is that you’re better able to lift more weight—like, significantly more than you could with dumbbells. “One of the main upsides is that the machines are much easier to learn, and you are able to lift heavier weights due to a fixed range of motion which limits usage of other muscle groups,” says Sant. “Think of it as a more isolated exercise variation than a free weight.” Christi Marraccini, founding trainer and creator of Go on Neou App, adds that you’re getting more support because of the machine itself: “It’s much easier to target the muscle groups that you want to work [when] using machines. You are able to move more weight since some of the weight is being supported by the machine and not your body,” she tells me.
“You are able to lift heavier weights due to a fixed range of motion which limits usage of other muscle groups.” —Vince Sant
Then there’s the injury factor—according to Sant, you’re more likely to hurt yourself or tear something when using free weights versus machines. “Machines have less risk of injury because you’re not freely moving a weight around, and you can give your aching body parts a rest,” he says. You just, of course, want to make sure you’re reading those instructions if you’re new to the machine so that you’re doing the exercise correctly. On a related note, machines are also the right way to go if you’re recovering from an injury. “Machines are great for people that are injured or need certain modifications,” says Marraccini. This is due to the isolation of muscles being worked, and the fact that they ensure you have proper form (unlike in free weights).
If you’re new to weight training, machines are also an ideal way to work your muscles. “If you’re new to a movement, a machine can be a great start and help in learning proper mechanics and where you should feel the exercise working,” says Timmons.
So opt for using the machines for these main reasons: to target a specific muscle more, learn the mechanics of weight lifting easier, and to use as an accessory for bigger lifts, according to Sant. “Just make sure to use enough weight to overload the muscle you’re trying to target. Because you’re able to handle more weight on machines than with free weights, you don’t want to get into the mindset of using the same weight for a machine chest press as you would use with dumbbells,” says Sant. “You want to go heavier to stimulate your chest muscles enough for growth.”
Or, you know, you can just use them sporadically as part of your fitness regimen. “I’d use them as an accessory to any training you’re doing,” says Marraccini. “They’re a great addition and a great complement to any workout as well as a great way to change up your routine.” Bonus points for not needing anyone to spot you during your lifts.
When to use free weights
Working out with dumbbells is called ‘free weights’ for a reason: “You’re going to have more of a free range of motion due to being able to move the weights in any direction you please,” Sant explains. Hence why you can add moves like squats or lunges to your bicep curls or shoulder presses—you are literally free to do whatever you want with your body as you’re lifting weight…which leads to another dumbbell perk. “Using free weights allows you to work various muscle groups, depending on the exercise as well as strengthening stabilizer muscles,” says Sant. “This also helps strengthen your body overall, even if you don’t realize it, and improve coordination.”
Free weights are also key for applying strength to, well, IRL situations. “When you push something in real life, you typically won’t have your back up against an immovable object to help you,” says Timmons. According to him, it’s really all about form, technique, mobility, and stability. “Ground-based resistance training with free weights should be the goal for everyone, and should be part of everyone’s routine when they are ready to take them on with proper form,” he says, though there’s a place in everyone’s routine for either machines or free weights.
With great freedom comes great responsibility, though—and, in the case of free weights, that applies to your injury risk. “One thing to look out for with free weights is a higher risk of injury due to having to control your own form,” says Sant. So stay conscious of your form when working out sans machine.
Go with the dumbbells if you’re looking to “work more overall muscle and to improve coordination,” says Sant. It can also be more convenient compared to waiting for someone else to get off of a machine. So, ya know: Choose wisely.
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