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Which is better: free weights or machine training?

Machine versus weight training is always a controversial subject within the fitness industry. I am not really sure why.

The answer to one of the most popular fitness questions as to which is better: Free weights. Each and everytime.

Strong Mom!

Let me define free weights as dumbbells, barbells, logs, rocks, milk jugs, groceries, pots and pans, your kids, your pets, your spare tire, construction materials, tools, briefcases, purses, shoes, and even your own body weight. I could keep this list going all day.

We will simplify it as added weight or resistance beyond what your muscles must do normally with minimal movement. So when you go up stairs, that’s resistance. When you pick up your kids or pet, that’s resistance.

But why the funny list? Look it over. You will note a few things. They may resemble activities or situations you might encounter in life. Funny. Not really, I did that on purpose.

Machines are not ever necessary for your body, they are not safer for your body, and in many instances they are dangerous for your body. Not to mention they are expensive, heavy, not always user friendly, and have limited adaptations beyond their often singular purpose.

So why do we use them? Why are gyms full of them? A few simple reasons.

  1. It’s just the way gyms have always been designed. Gold’s gym, Venice Beach; the birthplace of the gym, bodybuilding, and exercise machines were built by a bodybuilder, for bodybuilders, for bodybuilding. No other reason. We began to idolize their bodies and gyms sprang up all over the place promising that if you use these machines and train like these people you will be able to have similar bodies. Ha. Weird hasn’t happened yet.
  2. People (and unfortunately some very misguided personal trainers) think machines are safer and easier to use. They are not safer. Period. And easy to use? Have you tried to adjust some of these things? Really? Even if you know the proper biomechanical position for your body it can take a while to get it set right to you. Then someone comes along between sets and makes adjustments and you have to do it all over again. Damn it.
  3. It makes sales easier. Think about it, gyms and trainers get you hooked on their machines and systems. You don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy them all, you don’t understand how to work them, and you don’t really understand why you are doing what you are doing. What are your options then? To stay on paying your membership so you have access to what you think is your best fitness investment and keep making your personal trainer payments because without them you would be hopelessly lost.

Having completed a Masters degree in Human Movement, being a fitness professional with almost two decades of experience, and a strength and conditioning coach who has trained amateur, national and Olympic level athletes, I can promise you one thing your body was not meant to be trained on machines. Your body was not designed to work one muscle, then move on and work another muscle, and then on to the next and so forth.

You are designed to work as a smooth coordinated unit. You are your own machine. You don’t want some metal contraption forcing you into positions and angles that you would never encounter in real life. What sense does that make?

And machines are safer? It’s a common argument/marketing ploy you will hear quite frequently. Here is my response, how exactly? The knee extension machine places more strain and stress through your knee joint than most sports do or walking down stairs does. How is that safer than actually playing sports or walking down stairs? And who ever thought it was a good idea to sit on a machine, put on a seatbelt and then lift a huge stack of weights using just your lower back? Don’t we try and teach people never to lift huge amounts of weight using just their lower back?

Here is what you need to know.

Free weights and bodyweight exercise is not only better for you, but necessary for your health and fitness. It is not more dangerous than machines (in fact it is most often safer) and is much more practical, effective, and affordable than machines.

Anyone that tells you otherwise, well, ask them why. See what they say. Then see if they have a vested interest in them. Like maybe a gym they own that relies on machines? Or a product they are trying to sell you?

And check to see if these machine advocates really know what they are doing. Check their background, experience, results, education, and anything else you can think of. Are they experience and qualified? Or perhaps they were also just convinced that machine training is better or perhaps more safe.

Remember, you own and operate only one “machine” and if you take good care of it, it will serve you well for many years to come.

-Coach Taylor

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