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Free Weights vs. Machines

Posted 7/7/2017 by UHBlog

Not sure what type of workout is best for you? Ask us.

Free Weights vs. Machines

Many gym rats fall into one of two categories – those who favor free weights and those who swear by machines. But do you really have to choose just one?

“There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be doing both, if that’s an option,” says physical therapist and triathlete Benjamin Geletka. “If I was going to pick one for an athlete, I’d pick free weights because it gives you more options that are replicable to take on the field of play. But those in the geriatric population or people recovering from injuries may need to use machines because they can’t tolerate free weights yet.”

A free weight is any handheld strength-training apparatus. This includes single weights, barbells, weighted bars, exercise bands or tubes, weighted balls and kettlebells. A machine generally operates on a pulley system and concentrates on one muscle group, such as a lat pulldown machine for upper arms or an abductor/adductor machine for thighs.

Whether you choose free weights, machines or a combination of both, aim for a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes of strength training three times a week, combined with at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise five times a week. Bodybuilders and athletes will require additional time. Geletka suggests either performing strength training and cardio on separate days or doing strength training before cardio.

According to Geletka, there are benefits and drawbacks of exercising with free weights, including:

PRO: They allow for functional training, meaning they focus on large-body movements that stabilize specific muscles and move others to mimic daily activities. Depending on your goal, that may translate to being able to lift groceries without wrenching your back or pitch nine innings of baseball without incurring shoulder pain.

PRO: There’s a greater range of motion because you aren’t inhibited by the reach of a machine.

PRO: Boredom is less likely because you can perform endless variations with a set of weights compared to one or two moves with a machine. For example, the same hand weights used to perform traditional bicep curls, triceps kickbacks or chest flies can also be held while squatting, lunging or doing Russian twists.

PRO: No pricey gym membership is required. An upfront investment in a few sets of weights, kettlebells or the like is all you need for an at-home fitness center. When you hit the road, throw some resistance bands or tubes in your luggage and you’ll be ready to exercise anywhere.

CON: Improper technique can lead to injury, so it’s important to learn proper form from a qualified trainer before going it alone.

CON: You need to start with weights that are lighter than those you may be able to tolerate on machines.

“If you’re doing a squat and lifting a weight (simultaneously) and you want to build strength, you have to lift at least 70 percent of the maximum weight you’re capable of lifting with one squat,” Geletka says. “If your maximum is 200 pounds, then the minimum weight you need to build strength is 140 pounds.”

CON: You may need a spotter, depending on the exercise and the amount of weight you’re lifting.

Machines also have advantages and disadvantages, Geletka says, such as:

PRO: They’re user-friendly.

“Machines are very approachable and less intimidating,” he says. “They move in a fixed direction so they are easy to learn and master quickly.”

PRO: No spotter is required.

PRO: They isolate specific muscle groups, which is helpful if you’re working on strengthening one area.

CON: Full-body workouts take longer because you must use separate machines to strengthen each muscle group versus doing squats with an overhead press, for example, which works legs and arms simultaneously.

CON: Their singular focus can cause injury.

“Doing repetitive movements in the same direction multiple times can lead to wear and tear, which can lead to tendonitis or other injuries to the joint,” Geletka says.

CON: You’re at the mercy of other people at the gym, who often hog machines or don’t wipe them down after finishing their reps. At peak times, such as before or after the traditional workday, wait times may be long.

Benjamin Geletka, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, is a physical therapist at University Hospitals Avon Health Center. You can request an appointment with Geletka or any other health care provider online.

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