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Machines, Free Weights, or Body Weight Exercises? by Matthew Romans

One of the oldest topics of debate in the field of exercise and on website message boards centers around which is the most effective tool to use to get stronger and fitter. Are free weights better than machines, or vice versa? Can you benefit from simply doing body weight exercises? Varying opinions have been put forth over the years; some of them have been reasoned, others much less so. In order to come up with a clear answer, we need to briefly examine the history of all three mechanisms and compare and contrast them.

While the history of the dumbbell can be traced back to Greco-Roman times, the barbell is a comparatively recent invention. Many physical culture experts trace its origin back to sometime in the mid-19th century. Use of the barbell gained steadily in popularity after the turn of the 20th century and into the golden age of strongman and bodybuilding competitions through the 1960s and 1970s. It is still widely used today in commercial gyms, weightlifting competitions, and by collegiate and professional strength coaches.

The origin of exercise machines goes back to Gustav Zander, a Swedish physician and orthopedist. He designed his first exercise machines back in the 1860s, and later established his own institute in Stockholm. After Zander, very little innovation was made in exercise machine design for nearly 100 years, until the Universal Gym Company was founded in 1957. These machines were usually one large exercise station, with several exercises comprising one unit. Arthur Jones released to market his first Nautilus Pullover exercise machine in 1970. It was Jones' desire to improve upon the limitations of the barbell, as well as the flawed design of Universal machines. He did this by creating a machine that had variable resistance through the entire range of motion by use of a resistance cam that was shaped much like a nautilus shell. This was light-years beyond anything that had come along before. Ken Hutchins, founder of Super Slow Exercise Protocol, took it a step further by designing his machines to track muscle and joint function more effectively. These resistance cams are engineered based on an ideal slow speed of movement (much slower than Nautilus Exercise Protocol), which allows the muscles to be most effectively targeted.

Bodyweight exercises have probably been around since prehistoric times. Chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups (or abdominal crunches), and bodyweight squats have been performed in military physical fitness evaluations and physical education classes for decades. These exercises are still performed today in fitness classes and in preparation for athletic contests.

Which of these methodologies is best? Free weights, machines, and bodyweight exercises, to varying degrees, can all have a place in a comprehensive and effective exercise program.

While free weights can be used effectively for exercises in which a machine may not be available (such as a bicep curl or wrist curl), this modality is limited by several factors. First, you may need to use a spotter or partner (on exercises like the bench press or squat), as you may be put into a potentially dangerous position. Depending on how much weight you're using, the spotter and the lifter can be compromised. Second, certain exercises cannot be done using free weights, such as the Pulldown exercise (this is probably the most effective exercise for the upper body). Third, a barbell or a dumbbell has no way to vary the resistance based on leverage factors. That means that the resistance may be too heavy in areas of the the range of motion where you are weakest, and it may be too light in areas where you are strongest.

While bodyweight exercises can be effective for a time (particularly if you don't have access to any other equipment), they ultimately fall short because there is no way to progressively increase resistance. In order to gain strength, you need to continually challenge the muscles with a greater amount of resistance. Unless you continue to gain body weight (not really what you want) or constantly increase the number of repetitions (which makes the workout too long), your initial strength gains will eventually plateau.

Well Designed exercise machines offer greater safety and stability, and are usually cammed to allow variable resistance based on leverage factors. Your muscles' primary function is to produce force; this is what enables movement. In order to get the optimal exercise stimulus, it is best to push your muscles to the point of momentary muscular fatigue or failure; this is more safely and easily accomplished on a machine than with free weights or bodyweight exercises because you don't have to worry about dropping a weight on yourself or putting yourself into a compromising position. The machines that we offer at Total Results are engineered to fit our exercise protocol; they allow us to progressively add resistance in small increments (as little as 1.25 pounds), facilitate safe entry and exit, track muscle and joint function properly, and have minimal friction in the weight stacks to accommodate our slow movement speed.

At Total Results, we mix in select free weight, body weight, and even manually resisted exercises to many clients' programs. You can make gains in strength by using free weights and bodyweight exercises, but our exercise machines, combined with the ideal exercise environment, technical instruction, knowledge, and experience provide the safest, and most productive exercise stimulus possible.

Posted February 18, 2019 by Tim Rankin