Whether you want to firm up or pump up, machines and free weights can both help you gain muscle weight in unique, physique-enhancing ways. Machines isolate and build individual muscles, and free weights improve muscle tone and functional strength. No matter which form of resistance you choose to use, workout intensity and frequency can control how much muscle you pack on. Machines, free weights or both may be best for helping you look your personal best.
Weighing Your Options
Understanding the differences between working out with machines and free weights can help you decide if it’s smart to use dumbbells, put a pin in a machine weight stack, or do both. According to the American Council on Exercise, free weights, such as dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and resistance bands simulate natural, everyday functional movements. Free weights can also develop core strength by recruiting full-body stabilizer muscles. Machines, used for performing exercises such as biceps curls and leg extensions, keep your body in a restricted position. Machines can be effective for isolating muscle groups, strengthening muscle imbalances and rehabilitating injuries.
Functional vs. Structural Goals
If you want to firm up and improve functional strength, focus more on working out with free weights, but if you want to be more muscular, use machines to refine and define, advises National Academy of Sports Medicine certified trainer Keats Snideman. For example, he explains that athletes such as sprinters, who prioritize functional sport specific goals, predominantly train with free weights. Athletes and bodybuilders more interested in structural goals, such as building muscle mass, often use free weights in conjunction with machines to target specific muscles intensely and promote maximum growth.
Muscle Customizing Tips
Free weights and machines can both stimulate muscle growth, but you can always be the master of your own muscle destiny. The weight increments you use, the number of exercise sets and repetitions you perform, and the frequency of your workouts can all contribute to customizing and shaping the future of your shapely body.
To clear up confusion about whether to use machines or free weights, Dr. Edward R. Laskowsi, Mayo Clinic physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, suggests considering how buff you want to be and your current fitness level. If you’re just starting to work out, machines that are easy to use, control full range of motion and minimize the risk of injuries are a good starting point. If your fitness level is more advanced, free-weight exercises that involve balance, stability, control and coordination can make workouts more challenging. Before exercising, consider health concerns and injuries. Consult with a health care provider to determine if working out with machines or free weights is right for you.
Bari Auerbach writes a fitness column and has won trophies in fitness shows. Since graduating from Florida International University in 1984 with a degree in communications, she has written for national clients; interviewed dignitaries and celebrities for magazines; and has covered topics including business, politics, fashion and food.