Free Weight vs Machines: Let’s Ask Studies

free weight vs machine

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The discussion about the advantages of this or that sports equipment for some has long turned into a holy war: some will never touch the barbell (since exercises with it are fraught with injuries), others will never approach the machine (since it is not hardcore). Now is the time to take apart the beliefs of both sides, sort out reasonable arguments, and end the pointless argument about what is better free weight vs machines.

Free Weight vs Machines: Free Weight Adherents Dogmas

Machines are non-functional

They restrict movement to a fixed trajectory, and the force gained in this way helps less in the extrasal realities.

Stabilizers are not involved in machine training

You don’t have to tense to stabilize, so these important muscles are not getting the payload.

The training trajectory is not for everyone

It is impossible to tune the equipment for any type of physique. Therefore, not all exercise exercises will be optimal.

Free weights give more strength

Since it is more difficult to coordinate movement, the central nervous system works more efficiently, which ultimately leads to a greater increase in strength.

Free weights cause more muscle micro-trauma

And this is one of the mechanisms of hypertrophy.

Free Weight vs Machines: Machines Worshipers’ Dogmas

Tension is tension

The muscles do not understand what is loading them – a separate projectile, a simulator, a block module, their own weight, a coal wheelbarrow, a haystack, etc. In any case, mechanical work takes place, the muscles adapt and grow.

“This music will be eternal”

A well-designed machine provides a constant load throughout the entire range of motion (and even increases it in areas where the muscles are “stronger”). Free weight – “dead” weight, up to two-thirds of the movement can occur with far from the maximum intensity.

The machine makes it easier to focus the load on target groups

The stabilization advantage of free weights is at the same time a disadvantage – the load can be sprayed across different muscle groups, depriving the target. And the weight machine allows you to concentrate more on it.

With free weights, it is easier to count

Here the fixed trajectory of the simulator, which is often called a disadvantage, suddenly becomes an advantage – you cannot “help” with other muscle groups by removing the payload from the working one.

Machines load the nervous system less

While CNS stimulation is important for developing maximum strength, it should not be overworked. Nervous fatigue leads to a decrease in dopamine levels and an overproduction of cortisol. If, for example, you are training exclusively for hypertrophy, then CNS fatigue is best negated.

Failure safe

Although you can pump perfectly without going to failure, it strongly stimulates hypertrophy (a number of studies confirm).

And yes, you can work to failure on any equipment, with a basic barbell or dumbbell. However, multi-joint exercises with free weights, when driven to failure, overwork the body so much that there is more harm than good. The machine allows you to give all your best with minimal risks.

What is Better Free Weight vs Machines?

Both sides are right about something but wrong about other things. There are nuances: nuances are important; in some conditions, free shells are more effective. In others – fixed trajectory.

Let’s consider the main causes of hypertrophy.

Find out more about triggers of muscle growth here – How to Build Muscle With Scientific Approach.

4 Triggers of Muscle Growth

1 – Fatigue of muscle fibers

Quoting Professor Zatsiorsky, “If the muscle fibers were recruited but not tired, then they were not exercising.” A study by Cameron and Mitchell (2012) confirms this claim: running to failure for 8 weeks resulted in the same weight gain with the load as 30% and 80% maximum.

2 – Microtrauma of muscles

For a long time, this was considered the only cause of hypertrophy. The damage received during training triggers the recovery processes, which leads to growth.

Most of the microtrauma can be obtained using relatively large weights (70-85%) in the middle range of repetitions (5-8, sometimes up to 10 per set) and stretching the muscles under load.

3 – Activating mTOR

The intracellular mTOR signaling pathway triggers protein synthesis (leading to hypertrophy). Most of all, this anabolic response is stimulated by stretching the muscles under significant stress and prolonging the eccentric phase (weight loss). Simply and practically speaking – slow negatives (4-6 seconds) and pauses in an extended position (a couple of seconds).

4 – Local growth factors, lactate

The good old lactate-related burning sensation is traditionally prized by bodybuilders as well. And science suddenly says they are right!

By itself, lactate stimulates growth (Oishi et al. 2015, Nalbandian and Takeda, 2016) by increasing stem cell activity, increasing follistatin levels, and decreasing myostatin levels. There is also a correlation between lactate and IGF (insulin-like growth factor). Accumulation also increases by prolonged time under load (set up to 40-70 seconds) with the constant tension of the working muscles.

And how do free weight vs machines cope with this?

Basic, old-school, and vaunted free weights have a clear advantage on only one point – more microtraumas. Plus, the mTOR signal is slightly higher. But more muscle fatigue, accumulation of lactate, and local growth factors in simulators – with less neurological costs.

Here is a comparison chart of fully free weights, machines, and blocks.

Free Weights vs Machines vs Cables

Effectiveness for hypertrophy

Free WeightMachinesCables
Local growth factors++++++

Let me explain why.

Muscle microtrauma

Muscle injuries are associated not so much with weight as with the distribution of the load along the fibers – the more unevenly they are recruited, the more microtraumas appear. That is why muscles hurt the most after new, unusual exercises. And then, when you get used to them, even with a greater load (working weight), the muscles hurt less.

Movements with free shells are the most difficult to coordinate, so there are more microtraumas. You get used to exercising trajectories much faster.

Muscle fatigue

And here the machines are better. Why? I have three reasons for this:

  1. Failure increases the neurological cost of exercise. Therefore, it is more useful to reach it in less “nervous” movements: isolating on the block/simulator, isolating with free weights, multi-joint on the block/simulator.
  2. Working to failure on the machine is safer, especially in multi-joint movements.
  3. It’s harder to cheat on exercise machines by helping working muscles with other groups. The better the target muscles work, the stronger and larger they will become.

Local growth factors

Studies have already shown that local factors directly affect the working muscle group, for example, which is why training with restriction of blood flow (using couplings, bandages, etc.) is especially effective. However, the same effect can be achieved by extending the time under load (up to 40-70 seconds) while maintaining constant tension (trying to contract the muscle throughout the repetition). On simulators and blocks, this is better than with free weights, the load from which changes in different sections of the amplitude.

The mTOR signaling pathway and the accumulation of lactate are associated not so much with the type of load (it can be effectively stimulated with both the barbell and the simulator), but with the duration of the set, pauses in the stretched position, and an emphasis on the negative:

At the same time, I note that too long negative in “large” barbell exercises (deadlift, squatting, etc.) often leads to a violation of the execution technique.

So which is better: free weight vs machines?

And so we got to the simple answers.

Free weights are best when:

  • The main goal is the overall strength of the whole body.
  • You are betting on micro-trauma by working with large enough weights (70-85%) in the middle range of repetitions (5-10) and loading the target muscles in a stretched position.
  • Want the most gains with the least amount of exercise

Machines are best when:

  • You are unable to concentrate on the work of the desired muscle group with free weights
  • You rely more on local growth factors than microtrauma
  • Prefer to work to capacity, accumulating muscle fatigue

Free weights and machines are equal when:

You put on the mTOR signaling path (slow negative, pause in extended position) and lactate accumulation (40-70 seconds under load). But, again, when tightening, the technique is more difficult to follow with free weights.

Free Weight vs Machines – Core Takeaway

It is clear that our muscles are not aware of what we have in our hands when they are doing biceps curls – dumbbells, a barbell, or the handle of the machine. There really is no significant difference, which is what numerous studies tell us, for example,

In this study, 46 people trained for at least 2 years, men and women, were divided into 2 groups, and for 8 weeks, one of them performed the prescribed program on machines, and the other with free weights.

Output. Our research shows that training with free weights or with machines does not measure muscle hypertrophy or strength gains.

In this study, 36 novices, divided into 3 groups, trained for 10 weeks. The first – only with free weights, the second – only in simulators, and the third after 5 weeks of machines switched to free weights.

The conclusion was that “male beginners can get an increase in strength and hypertrophy after 10 weeks, regardless of the use of free weights or machines, while not experiencing a rollback when switching from machines to free weights.

Now from science to practice and logic. If free weights were significantly more effective in terms of hypertrophy in front of the machines, then we would see professional athletes doing only free weights, but this is not the case.

In general, let me remind you that bodybuilding training is not tied to specific exercises or equipment, and therefore, bodybuilders have an order of magnitude more exercises in their arsenal than, for example, powerlifters.

I recommend putting the thought out of your head and instead start exercising normally, using the exercises, equipment, or simulators that are more comfortable for you and where you can feel the muscles better.

Free Weight vs Machines: Choose Yours

In the bench press, compared to the Smith machine, the activation of the middle deltoid muscle is really higher, and the anterior deltoid and pectoralis major are similar (Source). 

Another study compared squats and leg presses and found that both free weights and machines can improve functional performance equally.

Of course, every weight machine is different, in contrast to the barbells and dumbbells, but I do not urge you to choose. I urge you to combine them in strength training.

Surely, this is just my opinion, but serious scientists and Methodists have spoken on this topic.

One of the most famous sports scientists, Chris Beardsley also spoke about this:

Exercising on strength machines improves the competitive performance of an athlete, but not as much as exercises with free weights. All studies, without exception, have shown that exercising on machines increases strength as measured by free weights. 

In short – train, progress, and on which equipment is your choice.

Choose the right training tool for your liking. Chopping down categorically “no exercise equipment” or “no barbells” is the same as declaring “no carbs” or “no fats.” Of course, such austerity can be sustained for some time, but it is difficult, boring, and less effective in the long run.

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