Strength Training’s Importance and Free Weights Versus Machines

In my experience, the average person does not understand how crucial strength training is to an exercise regimen. I can only guess why this is so:

  1. A lack of decent physical education in schools.
  2. When there is physical education, its emphasis is primarily on aerobic endurance, leading many to believe aerobic exercise is all that’s needed for optimal health.
  3. Women being lead to believe that lifting heavy will make them bulky.
  4. Active agers possibly being lead to believe they’re too fragile for weight lifting.
  5. The belief that there is a “fat burning zone,” one that is programmed into a lot of cardiovascular equipment, and that strength training is detrimental to this.
  6. A lack of decent advice from doctors when it comes to what types of exercises their patients should be engaging in.
  7. The overall lack of education when it comes to safe weight lifting in general. It’s easy to get on a treadmill and run or walk (although running is a lot more complex than people understand). It’s even harder to figure out how much you should be lifting, how many sets and repetitions you should be doing, and how long your rests between sets should be.

I totally understand there is a steep learning curve when it comes to weight lifting. Unless you’re truly passionate about lifting or are a personal trainer or in rehab, weight lifting is intimidating. The average person simply does not want to devote a lot of time to learn about programming for strength training.

Much of the people I have met who spend a lot of time with free weights and practice good and safe technique are either passionate about weight lifting, had a trainer in the past, are athletes or did athletics with emphasis on weight lifting as cross-training, or had someone experienced in weight lifting teach them (usually a spouse or a friend).

My point is that the average person, without any of the caveats above, is going to flounder in the free weights. They’ll either touch the free weights once or never again or look like the people in GymFuckery–though not always this extreme.

So it’s hard to convince someone entirely new to weight lifting that strength training is a necessity for optimal health. While we as trainers do orientations for the machines and give out formulaic advice (do 1 set of 12 for every body part or 3 sets of 12 or whatever), most people still gravitate toward group classes because, for one, group classes come with a membership, and for another, they don’t want to bother themselves with thinking about what they need to do, even though the machines are really easy to use.

Sure, they can learn a lot about safe weightlifting technique in a group class, but group classes often emphasize light weights, as lifting heavy in a group setting without one-on-one attention poses a risk.

Yet, the formulaic advice we give is still enough for most people to gain some lean mass and maintain it. But even with most people knowing this, they still may not understand why they need to do it, so I’m going to tell you why you needn’t dismiss strength training, and why even the most basic advice can get you started on the right track.

(If I hear one more woman complain that she’s going to bulk up or one more man talking about how he started losing weight when he dropped the strength training in favor of doing purely cardio, I’m going to hold a public stoning with dumbbells.)

Let’s break it down.

  1. Strength train to preserve lean mass. According to Haff and Triplett (2016), “after age 30 there is a decrease in the cross-sectional areas of individual muscles, along with a decrease in muscle density, reductions in tendon compliance, and an increase in intramuscular fat” (p. 148). In simpler turns, if you’re not keeping up with a program of strength training, you’re going to lose muscle mass. And you’re going to gain fat. A loss in muscle mass thus increases your risk of injury, particularly as you age. A fall at 65 could result in a broken hip if you’re not either building or preserving lean mass. And a loss in muscle mass can make it difficult to get up off the floor. For those who are young, this seems like a far, impossible future, but even strength at a young age can prevent many serious injuries.
  2. To increase or maintain bone mineral content. With a resultant loss in muscle mass, there is also a loss in bone mineral density, making your bones weaker and much more susceptible to fractures. A bone that is exposed to loads is much more likely to adapt to said loads by becoming stronger. And body weight alone generally isn’t enough. Since many group classes are either body weight or body weight with light weights, the stimulus is too weak to allow any meaningful adaptation. This is why resistance training is crucial (Heath). I had a grandmother who broke her hip while in a nursing home and was much too frail to have surgery to repair it. They didn’t give her long, but she lived a couple of years with this hip. I think about this and realize I don’t want to fracture my hip should I fall in old age. That alone is enough to convince me I need to keep lifting weights.
  3. An increase in metabolic activity. The more lean mass you have, the more calories you’re going to burn (Andrews). Muscle mass is much more metabolically active than fat mass, as your body must burn more calories to maintain muscle tissue. I love to look it this way: the more calories I burn, the more I get to eat. And who doesn’t want an excuse to eat more?
  4. It just feels good to be strong. This alone is enough of an incentive for me to strength train. I love knowing I don’t have to make as many trips when unloading groceries because I’m strong enough to carry several loads into the house. While I hate picking up after people who don’t put their weights up, I love knowing I can put up an 80 lb. dumbbell without requiring anyone’s help. We have to pick up and carry stuff all the time. Being stronger just makes it easier, and why wouldn’t you want to make things as easy as possible? Wouldn’t you love to avoid throwing your back out because your lack of strength made it difficult to pick up a box?

So now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of strength training’s importance, let’s break down the difference between machines and free weights and why you don’t want to become reliant on machines long-term.

Frankly, if I had my own gym, I’d have very few machines. I wouldn’t get rid of all of them, as some of them are fantastic for activating underactive muscles, such as the hamstrings in a leg curl exercise. Yet, even in a rehab setting (I was a physical therapy aide for a little bit), you’re going to see primarily a lot of work with bands and body weight and free weights and balancing devices, like bosu balls; thus, a lot of exercises that force patients to work both their core and stabilizing muscles.

If someone’s doing bicep curls for their tennis elbow, a PT isn’t going to have them using a machine: they’re going to have them use either free weights or have them do cable bicep curls, which really force the core and stabilizing muscles to work.

Even in patients with knee problems I never saw the PTs and PTAs being overly reliant on the leg press and leg extension machines. Much of it is still body weight.

In any case, here are some of the perceived benefits of machines:

  1. They’re easy to use, generally require minimal instruction, and anyone can use them with minimal risk of injury. Free weights can increase the risk of injury if you’re not careful.
  2. They are decent for very deconditioned individuals and are good for quickly increasing strength in said individuals. For sedentary individuals, it doesn’t take much to ramp up the heart rate, so free weights might be overwhelming at first.
  3. You can lift heavier without assistance, so these can be great finishers for certain types of workouts, such as ones with the singular goal of really building muscle mass for aesthetic reasons.
  4. They are very efficient for isolating muscles, especially ones that are underactive. For example, my hip impingement caused my hamstrings to be underactive, so the leg curl machine was great for activating them and getting them stronger. Squats and lunges alone would not have done that.

Okay, so while these are all benefits, you don’t want to forever stay married to machines. I see the same people day in and day out using the exact same machines every single time when they’re in the gym with zero progression to using actual free weights. And I know it’s because the machines are easy to use, but they’re just not truly functional. While I understand the term “functional” gets thrown around a lot, muscles never work in isolation.

Let’s back up a little bit and talk about the human movement system. According to Clark et al., “The HMS consists of the muscular system (functional anatomy), the skeletal system (functional biomechanics), and the nervous system (motor behavior)” (2014, p. 7). All of the systems must function together to make the human body an efficient machine. They can’t function in isolation; muscles cannot function in isolation. Sure, you can do leg curls all day, but it’s not training you to efficiently squat. It’s just training you to curl weight, which isn’t something you do during your day-to-day movement.

(The only people who can get away with using machines long-term are bodybuilders, as they can use these as finishers in a workout to thoroughly exhaust their muscles with minimal risk of injury.)

So here are the disadvantages of machines along with why free weights are king:

  1. Isolating muscles doesn’t teach those muscles how to function with the rest of the body. Plus, you’re generally training these muscles in only one plane of movement; the human body is innately designed to function in more than just one plane. Eventually, I had to pull myself away from the leg curl and start doing bodyweight exercises that allowed my hamstrings to integrate with the rest of my body. This meant doing exercises that targeted the hamstrings but also forced me to use my core and stabilizing muscles to keep my balance. As a result, I was able to move on to squats and lunges and actually feel my hamstrings working when, before, it was my quads doing all of the work. Doing leg curls alone would not have taught my hamstrings how to get along with all the other muscles in my body.
  2. You’re sitting your entire workout by using only machines. We sit so much throughout the day to begin with, and then we head on over to the gym to sit some more while isolating muscles and being gifted with the false sense of working hard when we’re not. You don’t have to use your core to maintain your balance and your stabling muscles don’t have to kick in to ensure both postural alignment and correct form.
  3. Machines are giving you a false sense of strength. Take the leg press, for example. You’re a deconditioned individual who can easily press 100 lbs., and while that seems impressive, it’s not. You’re probably someone who weighs a lot more than 100 lbs., so when you actually try bodyweight squats, you struggle to not only do them well but to get out 12 repetitions. When you’re on the leg press, you’re pushing against weight without having to fight neither gravity nor your own body weight.
  4. They’re simply not functional. Going back to the leg press, when are you ever going to find yourself in a situation where you’re seated having to push up against a set amount of weight? Rarely, if ever. However, you’re always goint to squat in some way to sit down or pick up something or whatever. Machines aren’t going to teach you how to properly do this, but bodyweight and free weights will.
  5. There is a lack of full range of motion because these machines, particularly the damning Smith machine, lock you in with a particular set range. Free weights, on the other hand, remove this barrier and allow you to really work these muscles.
  6. There is a lack of variety in exercises. The machines you see at your gym are generally the same machines at every commercial gym out there. But with free weights, there is almost an endless amount of variety to not only keep your workouts interesting but to keep pumping out novel stimuli for your muscles.
  7. If you’re so reliant on machines, you’re going to be at a complete loss of what to do if all of these machines are taken up one day at the gym and you’re left with nothing, or you can’t afford a gym membership anymore, so you have to work out at home. The great thing about free weights is that you can pick up a few of them at some store and have them at home for a rainy day.
  8. You’re not burning as many calories using machines since only one set of muscles at a time is ever working. However, if you’re working multiple sets of muscles, your body has to burn more calories to make this happen. While nutrition is a massive part of weight loss, exercise can help you burn off extra calories you may consume, such as that extra cupcake you had for dessert. Why not make this calorie burning as efficient as possible by doing exercises that encourage the body to burn more?

As you can see, if you truly want to become strong, you’re going to have to gravitate away from the machines and move toward the free weights. Being able to leg press 100 lbs. isn’t going to teach you how to properly squat so that way you can pick up that bag of groceries off the floor. Doing a heavy machine shoulder press isn’t going to efficiently teach your core how to work the way a free weight shoulder press will. Sure, I use machines on occasion, but for the most part, you’re going to see me working with free weights and cables.

References:

Andrews, Elizabeth. “The Importance of Strength Training as You Age.” American Council on Exercise. Retrieved from http://acefitness.org

Bergeron, Stephen. (2013). “Free Weights Vs. Machines: Which is Better?” BUILTLEAN. Retrieved from http://buildlean.com

Clark, M.A, Lucett S.C., & Sutton, B. G. (Eds.). (2014). NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Haff, G.G, & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaigne, IL: Human Kinetics.

Heath, Rory. “Does strength training build stronger bones?” Strength and Conditioning  Research. Retrieved from http://strengthandconditioningresearch.com

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