When it comes to building muscle; this question always seems to pop up. It would be pretty much impossible to find a gym that hasn’t seen people going crazy over this. “Should I squat with a freeweight barbell or Smith machine?”, “should flys be done with dumbbells or a pec-deck?”
Well, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you choose to stand on. Your objective should be to devise a training protocol that gives you the biggest bang for every minute spent under the weights.
Today, we want to talk about the pros and cons of each side of this argument. We will try and ascertain which of these training methods holds a better muscle building potential and the core considerations behind each.
Table of Contents
What free weights bring to the table
The following section will discuss the importance of free weight training and what value it offers in terms of overall fitness, muscle development, and other physical aspects.
Free weights equal greater muscle activation
Strictly from a muscle activation perspective, free weights will always give you a better bang for your buck than machines will. A simple demonstration of this principle is to examine the barbell squat. Barbell squat is often called a “total body workout”; and there’s a good reason for that.
Squats mainly work your quads. However, from your neck to the calves; there isn’t a single muscle that’s not engaged when you wrestle with that barbell while squatting down. Your core takes plays a crucial stabilizing role while you squat. Similarly, your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings help you control and drive up the weight.
Exercises such as barbell squats, deadlifts, and military presses are also called “compound movements” because they utilize multiple muscles and joints at a time. A leg press, on the other hand, only works your quads, effectively “isolating” them.
All in all, a combined 5-6 sets of barbell squats and deadlifts will hit your muscles a lot harder in a much shorter timespan than dashing from one machine to another will.
Free weights improve functional fitness
The term functional fitness means that you’re able to do everyday tasks without much trouble. You’re a lot less likely to “tweak” your back while pushing couches or hauling groceries if your body is functionally fit. A fitness regime focused on functional fitness involves exercises that focus on mobility, balance and core strength. Movements such as barbell squats and deadlifts are very effective at hitting all these aspects.
Not only that, but these movements also improve your muscle memory. Since both deadlifts and squats mimic everyday lifting and pulling, it becomes easier for your muscles to perform these tasks because they’re already used to an identical workload and a movement arc.
Free weights facilitate greater strength gains
Packing on muscle is only half the battle. Since many of us mainly workout to look good, we often tend to forget that muscle strength is an equally important component of the fitness equation. There is plenty of research data that demonstrates how free-weight training can take muscle strength through the roof!
Here’s a 2008 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It compares the effect of free and fixed weights on strength and balance gain. Men in their 40’s were divided into 2 groups and put through a 16-week strength training regimen with either free or fixed weights. The men who trained with free weights reported a 58% higher strength gain than those in the fixed weight group. Moreover, the men in the free weight group reported an improvement in balance that was 196% higher than those in the fixed weight group.
Free weights induce a greater hormonal spike
Testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) are two key hormones that are essential to hit your physical peak. They help you pack on muscle, make the bones stronger and of course help you under the sheets. Free weight training is great news for anyone who’s looking for higher testosterone and HGH levels.
Here’s a 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 10 men with equal weight training proficiency were asked to do 6 sets (10 reps) of either free barbell squats or leg presses. The study concluded, “free weight exercises seem to induce greater hormonal responses to resistance exercise than machine weight exercises.”
Another often overlooked advantage of free weights is their standardization. Whether you train in the Middle East or the North Pole; free weight equipment is pretty much the same. However, that’s often not the case with machines. Now with so many manufacturers making fitness equipment; you’d be surprised at the number of available equipment variations that essentially work the same muscle group. That’s an issue if you switch gyms because it takes time to get used to it.
Free weights are easy on your pocket
Not only are they a superior form of training, but free weights can also save you some serious cash while you hit your fitness goals. That is especially true if you’re planning on a home gym. A bench, a barbell and a couple of dumbbells is pretty much all you need. Whereas, machines will cost you a pretty penny plus they can be a headache to maintain.
The case for using machines
Yes, free weights offer tremendous fitness and muscle building potential. However, there are several good reasons why you’ll find machines in every gym. They do indeed offer certain benefits that are hard to replicate with barbells & dumbbells.
Bringing up lagging body parts
Machines allow you to focus on muscle groups that may need extra attention. For instance, if your quads need extra work, you could choose to crank out 3 extra sets of heavy barbell squats, but that’s often not an efficient approach as it’s over-tiring and prone to injury. The leg extension machine, on the other hand, would allow you to isolate the muscle without frying your entire body.
Another related advantage of machine work is that it allows you to correct off-balance body parts; for instance, if one arm is bigger than the other. Now an argument can be made that you could do the same with dumbbells. However, for certain body parts; that’s not always an option. For instance, a leg extension machine would be a better option for working on off-balance quads instead of attempting any one-legged free weight movement.
Rehab and injury management
Free weights are particularly useful while recovery from an injury. Physical therapy sessions often involve strengthening specific muscles to restore normal function. The ability of machines to isolate muscles greatly benefits muscular rehab.
Another important factor to consider is that a muscle has varying degrees of strength at various points of its range of motion. During rehab, a muscle may need to be worked at a specific point of its range of motion. Free weights don’t allow you to do that, however, machines do.
They’re easier to work with
Working out with machines usually has a much shorter learning curve than with free weights. This makes them particularly less scary if you’ve just started to hit the weights. Most machines have clearly mentioned instructions. This greatly reduces the likelihood of wrong form. Free weight movements such as deadlifts require supervision and practice before getting the form right.
Strictly from a fitness and strength standpoint, free weights definitely offer a greater growth stimulus. However, it would be unwise to assume that machines do not offer value. They indeed do and have their place in a training regime depending on your eventual goal.