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Free weights or resistance machines: what’s better?

12 Jan 2023 09:17AM by Nick Parkes, Athletic Training Activist

Strength & ConditioningWhether you’re planning on breaking a sweat in one of our Strength and Conditioning classes or giving it all you’ve got on the gym floor, deciding how you’re going to work out before you get to club is key for a successful session. And maybe this month you’re looking to shake up your exercise routine. 

Ask yourself: do you always head for the same types of equipment? Do you ever wonder what it would feel like to train in a different way?

Our Personal Trainers are often asked what the difference is between training free weights and resistance machines in the gym. So we asked our Athletic Training Activist Nick Parkes for the low-down… 

Free weights vs resistance machines: what’s what?

Before we get started, it might help to understand exactly what we’re talking about. 

‘Free weights’ include equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells and any other type of weight that can be freely moved. If you’ve ever come to our Strength and Conditioning classes, you’ll know that most exercises are built around the use of free weights. 

Resistance machines are the opposite. They’re fixed to the gym floor and work to train specific areas of your body. 

Why do we use free weights?

Free weights are versatile pieces of equipment that allow you flexibility in your workouts. Alongside them being a very adaptable tool for our classes, it’s one of the top reasons we love working out with them. 

For full-body strength…

A big benefit of using free weights is that they help to strengthen various groups of muscles in your body at the same time. Because free weights are portable, moving and training with them means that you engage a lot more muscles than you think. You’ll engage multiple muscles to keep yourself stabilised alongside training your main muscle group. Some of this you do subconsciously, like bracing your core for balance. Other times, like when performing an exercise that requires you to lift weights over your head, you consciously control your muscles with a tempo to ensure you are lifting safely. 

Top tip: it’s always better to start lighter and do more controlled reps than choose a weight you’re not familiar with. 

By engaging multiple muscle groups within one movement, you’ll find it quicker to build overall strength and expend more energy (calories) which, in turn, can help you deal with the challenges of day-to-day life and reduce the risk of injury.

For keeping your workouts versatile…

Another benefit of using free weights is that you can do lots of different exercises with the same equipment. Unlike machines, which usually specialise in a specific movement and muscle group, free weights are more adaptable. You can go from deadlifts and squats to using free weights in floor exercises like crunches and glute bridges to give yourself an extra challenge. 

It also means that you can perform different types of training. Take dumbbells, for example: they can be used for strength but also quick-fire sprint sessions, aerobic workouts or exercises that test your anaerobic capacity. 

For flexibility…

What’s more, free weights can be used anywhere. Choose a space in club – or for the days you’re working out at home, a room in your house - that feels right for you and you’ll be on your way to seeing a stronger and fitter you.   

Why should you use resistance machines?

While the benefits of using free weights are enough to stop you from thinking about using anything else, there are some distinct benefits to resistance machines. You’ll see them all over our gym floors and you might have even used them yourself. And for good reason… 

If you’re a beginner…

Resistance machines are so popular because they are a safe and controlled way of lifting weights. This is particularly useful if you’re new to exercise. 

Resistance machines are perfect for beginners or for when you’re learning new exercises because they encourage you to adopt the correct form. As a result, you’re less likely to get injured on a resistance machine (when you’re using it correctly and with a good weight for your ability). Once you’ve mastered your technique, you can use this form to lift free weights and work even more of your muscles when you’re doing these exercises. 

If you want to dial up your strength…

Unlike free weights, resistance machines also offer you a safe environment to test the limits of your strength. You can easily dial up or dial down the weight knowing that, if it’s too much, the machine will hold the weight and prevent you from injury. Your movements can also be controlled which means you really work your muscles – and work them correctly – even when you’re reaching fatigue. 

If you want to get specific…

Resistance machines can also be a key part of your routine if you want to train specific muscles. You’ll find out which muscles the machine helps you to train by looking at the guide that comes with each machine. Or, ask one of our skilled Personal Trainers in a free 45 minute personal training session.

By isolating specific muscles, they’ll get stronger and you’ll know that you’re getting closer to your fitness goals. This can also be positive if you’re trying to regain strength in specific muscles after an injury. But, remember, always speak to a medical professional beforehand if you’re using resistance machines for rehab and treat your body with care and respect.

What type of weight should I use?

There are plenty of benefits to using both free weights and resistance machines in your workouts and our advice would be to try both. That way, you’ll continue to challenge your body and it will respond by getting stronger and developing better all-round mobility and fitness. 

You can also try both to see which type of training works for you and brings you the most satisfaction and enjoyment. 

If you’re a beginner, you don’t just have to stick to resistance machines either. They’ll help you get started but if you want to try free weights, give our Strength and Conditioning or Lift Club classes a go. Our expert instructors will help you learn the basic techniques that will have you reaping the benefits of strength training in no time.  

So give it a go! 

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