The age old debate of whether free weights or machines are better still rages on today, and will do for years to come. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both machine exercises and free-weight moves such as lunges and squats, but when it comes to sculpting your thighs, crafting killer calves and building a beautiful butt, all you really need to care about is what method gets the best results.
Benefits of Squats and Lunges
Squats and lunges are both quadricep-dominant exercises, but also hit your hamstrings, glutes, calves and abs. Free weights in general work more muscle fibers than machines, writes trainer Cassandra Forsythe in "The New Rules of Lifting for Women." You have to work a lot harder to stabilize the weights, so you recruit more muscle fibers. Single-leg exercises such as lunges are especially useful for women who tend to have more knee issues with the AC and MC ligaments than men, claims corrective exercise specialist Mike Robertson in "Bulletproof Knees." Single-leg training strengthens the tendons, joints and ligaments, greatly reducing your risk of injury.
Benefits of Machine Exercises
The main bonus of machine exercises is that they're extremely user-friendly and simple to adjust. They also allow you to focus on individual muscle groups in a controlled range of movement, making them ideal for beginners or for rehabbing an injury. You might think that your thighs can get too bulky when doing lots of squats and free-weight moves, so machines focus on individual muscles that need improving without hitting the ones you don't want to make any bigger.
The big drawback to squats and lunges is that they can be tricky to learn and take time to master. Don't let this put you off though -- with the help of a qualified trainer and a few practice sessions, you can be squatting and lunging like a pro. While in theory, machines might seem safer, this isn't always the case. Leg machines, such as the Smith machine can force your joints into unnatural movement patterns, claims biomechanics expert Aaron Brooks in "Shape Magazine." Leg machines have very little real world carryover.
As is so often the case, the answer to which type of exercise is better is "it depends." If you want a workout that burns more calories, gets your heart rate up faster and is generally more demanding, then squats and lunges should be your go-to exercises. If, however, you want to really dial in on certain muscles, save energy for a cardio workout later, or are new to strength training, machines are likely the better choice.
- The New Rules of Lifting for Women; Cassandra Forsythe and Lou Schuler
- Bulletproof Knees; Mike Robertson
- McKinley Health Center: Free Weights vs. Resistance Machines
- Shape Magazine: 7 Exercises and Gym Machines to Skip
- JTPhoto/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images