Excuse Buster: Man versus machine

PHUKET: Walk into any gym and you’ll find a mix of machine weights and free weights. Less than five years ago, the fitness industry was loving machine weights, boasting how good they were for building size and strength. This has its truths, but after a while people have started to realize the lack of movement and mobility they had with machine weights, and even a decrease in their sports performance.

So, which is better? Straight off the bat, I would recommend free weights, but depending on your goals and abilities, machine weights do have a role. Let’s check out the advantages and disadvantages of both.


Most machines are pretty self-explanatory. They’re easy to use and relatively safe with multiple safeguards in case you get too carried away. In short, they allow you to attempt heavy weights without the need of a spotter. They also have a lower risk of injury. I see them used properly most often by bodybuilders who like to isolate muscles, and those who want to improve specific weaknesses in their physiques.


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The disadvantages would be that they are non-functional. Our primal movement patterns (push, pull, squat, twist) are the movements we use every day, and are bio-mechanically natural for us.
The Smith machine, for example, locks you into place, which does not allow you to do a natural squat, but certainly allows you to slap on a lot of weight.

In my opinion, this is a recipe for disaster, not to mention the resulting neglect on many smaller muscles. Since most machines lock you in position, the muscles that are meant to stabilize you become disengaged. Your primary movers will get a workout, but smaller muscles will become weak.


Free weights allow functional movement patterns in a full range of motion and activate stabilization muscles, keeping your joints healthy and fully operational. This, of course, reaps great benefits for everyday movement and activities, such as playing football with your kids or carrying the shopping. Mobilization is also one of the most important things for athletes who want to achieve optimal performance.


Free weights take a bit of practice to learn the proper technique. You’d be surprised how many bad habits I see in the gym because people have never learned the right way. Bad habits can lead to injuries.

Start lifting a free weight with a joint out of alignment and you can expect to tweak something, especially if you’re going heavy.

Make no mistake about it; if you’re going heavy you will almost certainly need someone to spot you, as there are no safeguards against gravity.

So, which one should you use? My vote is for free weights. Unless you’re a body builder with a specific goal, or someone going through rehab, I would avoid machine weights. If you’re a beginner, I would stick with super-light free weights or hire a trainer to show you the proper form so that you don’t slip into any bad habits.

Krix Luther is a fully qualified personal trainer with nearly a decade of experience specializing in strength and conditioning. For more information about Krix and his services, visit thevitruvianmethod.com

— Krix Luther

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