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Which Is Best: Machines, Free Weights, or Body Weight?

If you're hitting the gym for the first time or are tempted to venture off the cardio equipment, it can be hard to know which piece of strength equipment to choose. Dumbbell, barbell, machine, or mat? Get-Fit Guy Brock Armstrong helps you make an informed decision that's right for you. 

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #423
Photo of a weight room

Body Weight

A body weight exercise is an exercise where the resistance is provided by the combination of gravity and your own body weight. Despite how easy that may sound, these exercises can enhance many biomechanical parameters like strength, endurance, power, mobility, flexibility, and balance.

Body weight exercise can be thought of as moving your body from point A to point B instead of moving a weight from point A to point B.

Common examples: Sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, squats, chin-ups, and dips.

The pros:

It engages more muscles and sensory inputs such as balance and stabilization.

It allows you to naturally move through a large range of motion.

Nothing is restricting your body or forcing it into a fixed or unnatural position.

It allows you to practice movements in the almost exact manner that they are performed in real life.

The cons:

Beginners or people with movement limitations require some extra modifications to allow a body weight exercise to be executed for multiple repetitions (or perhaps even one). Think knee push-ups instead of military push-ups. 

Unlike weighted or machine exercises, you are stuck with one weight—your own—for every set. This means to increase the workout, you have no option but to do more sets and reps. 

Free Weights

This is any exercise where the resistance is provided by a free moving weighted object or objects. These objects force your body to work against their weight and gravity.

Similar to doing body weight exercises, free weights also work many of the smaller muscles that surround the bigger muscles that you are specifically targeting. For example, when you do a weighted squat with a barbell on your back, you're challenging more than just your quadriceps (front of your thighs). Your adductor and abductor (inner and outer) thigh muscles will have to get involved as well. Along with your glutes which work to keep your body tall, strong, and steady while you lift.

Common examples: barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance bands.

The pros:

It allows for movement on many planes, which can help build functional fitness.

It allows you to move through a full range of motion, unrestricted, that is natural for your body. If you have limited time to train then free weights are the way to go.

Most of the big, multi-joint exercises are considered functional movement because they apply directly to real life. If you get really good at weighted squats, you may get asked to help your friends move into their new apartment.

Uses additional muscles groups, body parts, and smaller stabilizer muscles that can go unused on exercise machines.

The cons:

Proper technique is a must, especially if the weight being lifted is heavy.

Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve and you will likely need someone to show you proper technique.

Even if proper technique is being used, the chance of injury is higher. Especially if you have trouble maintaining focus. 

Some exercises require a training partner (or spotter) to do effectively and safely.

Other equipment like a bench, squat cage, or a Smith machine are often necessary to perform certain exercises.

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