In this new era of fitness, it's very easy to forget the basics of strength training with free weights.
We are exposed to a variety of different machines and equipment that can be used to stimulate muscle growth and strength.
Let's focus on why using free weights is still one of the most effective ways to encourage muscle growth and strength.
The Difference Between Machines and Free Weights
A great place to start is to first understand the difference between machine weighted equipment and free weights.
Machine weighted equipment give you a fixed position from start to finish that allows you to concentrate more on lifting the load from point A to point B. This may be more attractive to a novice, as movements are made in a controlled manner.
Free weights on the other hand give you more free-form movement that require more stabilisation and can ultimately help with everyday physical activity.
Free Weights and Muscle Activation
When using free weights for resistance training, you have two factors: gravity plus the added weight on the bar (if using a barbell or dumbbell). You will need a greater amount of stabilisation to perform any exercise with free weights. Essentially this means it will generate much more muscle fibre recruitment to the area you are training. This can result in more lean body mass or better performance and strength.
Free Weights and Performance
Free weights can be used for many multi-joint exercises and compound movements such as the squat, dead lift, bench press and over-head barbell press. Doing these exercises target multiple muscle groups at the same time, resulting in improved overall strength and performance.
The dead lift, a great example of a free weight exercise, is a great way to increase and grow muscle cells, also known as hypertrophy. The dead lift also generates recruitment of muscle fibre from both the lower body and upper body muscle parts – giving you more bang for your buck.
Many sporting athletes implement free weight exercises to enhance their movements and improve their speed, power and force. Because of free weight exercise’s specific movement patterns, they complement an athlete’s performance very well. For example, an Olympic cyclist who wants to generate more power in the bike, will perform free weight exercises such as barbell squats or dumbbell lunges in order to improve strength within the legs.
Which is Better for Me?
A commonly asked question is, ''Which is better? Free weights or machine weighted equipment?''
Both machines and free weights have pros and cons – it comes down to what you're trying to achieve and your overall goal. For individuals looking to improve strength, develop muscle and performance, free weights would be ideally the main component of your program.
If your focus is to develop lean muscle tissue, rehab, or work on weak areas, machine weight equipment would be important, as well.
That said, incorporating both free weights and machines in your program could potentially get you to your desired fitness goal quicker. If you are struggling to decide between the two, I believe in starting with free weight exercises first to understand and connect with your body. It would be easier to identify what your body is doing wrong or right with certain movements, rather than a machine already fixing the movement for you, which can make the transition to free weight exercises more difficult.
The next time you're in the gym, start with identifying which muscle group to work on. With free weights you can learn to create a neural connection with an exercise which will ultimately help you accelerate in performance, increase lean body mass and strength. Always remember to assess your form so you can train safely with the best results!
Not sure where to start with free weight training? Let a Personal Trainer help you on your fitness journey.
Rainier is a Personal Trainer, Experience Leader and Boxing Coach at Virgin Active St Leonards. He has been actively involved in both Thai boxing and bodybuilding since he was 14 years old. He has competed in tournaments for the art of 8 limbs for 7 years, as well as teaching classes in the discipline. Alongside this, Rainier has been a top 5 State & National winner in bodybuilding. He has a deep passion for fitness and loves to teach his clients the importance of fun, fitness, focus and the process to producing results!