Now this is a popular argument… Free weights vs. machines is a debate that continues in the fitness world.
The machine enthusiasts argue that muscles can’t tell the type of resistance they are being subjected to and therefore will be affected the same regardless of being stimulated by machines or free weights.
This is a simple and narrow view. Don’t buy into it.
Because machines, some more than others, follow a pre-determined path they offer a limited opportunity to vary your workout. Yes, even the tiniest of differences between lifts and between workouts (even the changes you don’t realize you’re making) can be advantageous to keeping your body from adapting to the stress placed on it.
Additionally, free weights will stimulate more muscles. Not only will you be lifting the weight with free weights, you will be forced to stabilize that weight.
Free Weight Squatting Vs. The Leg Press
Squatting with free weights requires you to push the weight from the floor while simultaneously requiring you to stabilize it – balancing yourself so you do not fall forwards, backwards or off to the side, keeping your trunk straight, holding the weight, etc.
You are not only effectively hitting the target muscle, the quadriceps; you are literally recruiting muscles all over the body to perform the squat.
This makes the squat one of the hardest, the most intense, and the most effective strength or mass building exercise out there. It will stimulate muscle growth throughout the body.
Compare that to the leg press which everyone (often based on mysterious undocumented injuries) seems to love to substitute for the squat.
Here you are still targeting the quadriceps but you don’t stimulate anywhere near as much muscle. You can press quite a bit more weight than you can squat as the exercise requires little cooperation from accessory and stabilizer muscles. But it will not encourage overall muscle growth to the degree the squat will.
Do You Really Need Those Stabilizer/Accessory Muscles to Gain Muscle Mass?
Absolutely. Those muscles support the growth of the bigger muscles. Without that support, the bigger muscle groups (the ones that show, that “visible muscle” you’re after) will not grow with the efficiency they could.
To build maximum muscle mass, you want to stimulate as much muscle as possible with each exercise you perform. Free weight bodybuilding equipment will help you do this much more effectively than a reliance on machines.
On some exercises, machines like the Bowflex somewhat solve the problem of recruiting stabilizer muscles by using cable-systems to simulate free weight exercises. This is an improvement but there is still a problem with such machines that rely on rods and bands for resistance…
The resistance provided varies depending on the position of the exercise. The greater a rod is bent or the greater a band is stretched, the greater the resistance. So, as you progress through an exercise the resistance increases – near the bottom you are handling less resistance whereas near the top (and only near the top) you are handling maximum resistance.
Gravity-based resistance is simply superior to all other types of resistance. It provides even resistance throughout the entire exercise motion and, again, effectively stimulates more muscle fiber.
Is the Bowflex worthless? Absolutely not. I’ve used one and found it to deliver an effective workout. If I owned one, I would definitely use it. I would use it to complement free weights, however, not to replace them.
If your goal is muscle mass gain, you simply can’t beat free weights. It is certainly possible to progress using a Bowflex or similar equipment, but it is not the fastest or best way to accomplish mass gain goals.
What About The Safety of Machines?
A lot is made about the safety that machines provide in comparison to free weights. While it may be true that free weight exercises create the opportunity to produce more injuries than machine-based exercises, this disadvantage can be effectively nullified with intelligent training practices.
Learning AND practicing proper form is paramount to effective and safe use of free weights. Before advancing to heavy weights, a trainer should have perfected safe lifting form on lighter weights. Free weight exercises will be safer as well as more effective at developing strength and muscle mass at lighter weights with correct form (controlled, focused motion) than they will be at heavier weights with bad form.
Some free weight exercises also require a spotter (or self-spotting equipment). With a spotter in place on appropriate exercises, an intelligent non ego-based trainer should expect free weight exercises to be no more dangerous than machine-based exercises (injuries occur on machines as well).
The person whose main goal is building muscle mass as fast as possible should use free weights for the majority of his/her training. They simply have no rival.
Machine-based exercises have their place and can be an effective complement to free weights. However, if you are using them because they are “easier” or “more comfortable,” realize that you are cheating yourself out of muscle gains.
Now that the free weights vs. machines debate is over, what free weight exercises do you do?
For a listing of some of the top mass building exercises, check the Weight Training Exercises Database.