FREE WEIGHTS vs. MACHINES

Jerry Brainum

Science and Practical Applications of the Key Muscle-Building Tools

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For muscle mass and strength, is it better to use machines or free weights? Nearly all bodybuilders’ workout routines consist of a combination of free weights and machines, but in some cases machines offer definite advantages. They force you to adhere to a specified path of muscular contraction.

Years ago Nautilus machine inventor Arthur Jones frequently said that machines were designed to focus on correct exercise form. He felt that free weights weren’t perfect tools because lifting them could be so easily done with poor form and because the strength curves weren’t optimal with free-weight lifting. I’ve observed, however, that the majority of those who use Nautilus machines at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, do so improperly, thus negating the major advantages of the equipment.

Machines can also benefit those with injuries or structural problems that preclude using heavy free weights. My case, for example, involves the bent-over barbell row. It was once the cornerstone of my back training, along with its variations, such as T-bar rows. Several years ago, however, my lower back became unstable for reasons unrelated to my back training. At that point, I found that whenever I tried to use heavy weights during my bent-over barbell rows, I’d often suffer lower-back strain.

I partially offset the problem by using machines that duplicate the movement in bent-over barbell rows. Such machines often feature a seated position, with the chest resting on a brace that protects the lower back. My experience has been that the machines are a weak substitute for the free-weight version of the exercise. While the machines are capable of adding muscle mass, they’re limited. The great back development in professional bodybuilders—exemplified by Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and others, all of whom used heavy bent-over barbell rows in their workouts—underscores the advantages of free weights.

Yet six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates has frequently credited his regular use of the Nautilus pullover machine as the key to his superlative back development. So the best approach could involve a combination of free weights and machines. Most of the top bodybuilders I’ve trained with or observed over the past four decades seem to begin their training with heavy free-weight exercises followed by various machine exercises.

Machines Plus

Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom I trained many times at the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, liked to begin his back training with chins, which served as both a warmup and an upper-back exercise. He’d then move on to bent-over barbell rows, followed by T-bar rows, both with heavy weights. Occasionally, Arnold would follow the barbell rows with one-arm dumbbell rows, an exercise he began doing when British bodybuilding champion Frank Richard convinced him of its effectiveness in building thicker lats. Arnold always completed his back workout with seated cable rows. The average number of sets per exercise was six, and the reps varied from six to 20. He liked to finish his back with a good pump (which he jokingly once compared to a sexual orgasm) by doing 20-rep sets of seated pulley rows.

Most of the bodybuilders with the greatest arm development depended mainly on free weights. Arnold was in that category, though his primary competitor, Sergio Oliva, favored various cable triceps extensions. Oliva’s massive triceps development, however, more likely resulted from his use of heavy barbell and dumbbell extensions, with the cable work adding a finishing touch.

One muscle group where machine training may offer real benefits is the shoulders. Because of old rotator cuff problems, I can’t do most free-weight pressing movements. Years ago I worked up to using 315 pounds on behind-the-neck presses, which may have contributed to my subsequent shoulder instability. The exercise puts the shoulder joints in a vulnerable position, laying the foundation for future strain and injury. What I can do are seated machine presses, always pressing to the front to minimize shoulder irritation. Even so, I sometimes get a clicking in my shoulders after a particularly intense set, reminding me that my shoulder joints just aren’t the way they used to be.


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Stack Your Upper Back

Michael Gundill

Stack Your Upper Back

Look at Flex Wheeler’s upper back. What makes it look so good? Mainly the extreme development of his infraspinatus. Most average bodybuilders have two big holes in their upper backs because of flat infraspinatus muscles.

Many people confuse the rhomboids with the infraspinatus muscles. Most of the rhomboid muscles are hidden under the lower part of the trapezius and can’t be seen. Most of the infraspinatus muscles, however, are clearly visible. The rhomboids and infraspinatus have different functions as well, so they should be trained differently.

I Want 17-inch Arms!

John Hansen

I Want 17-inch Arms!

Q: I don’t know if you covered this in a previous installment of Naturally Huge, but how does a bodybuilder set realistic goals for biceps, calves, chest and so on. I’m 5’9”, medium build and have been training for one year after a 12-year layoff. I’ve set my goal at 17-inch biceps, calves and neck. I’ve made it to 15 inches so far. I’m also trying to get my thighs to 24 inches. I came up with the 17-inch arm measurement because that’s the minimum required to have my name on the “Big Guns” board at the gym. I’m not sure if it’s possible for a man of my size to have 19- or 20-inch arms without the help of steroids. I’m also 37 years old, if that matters.

Building the Ultimate Physique

John Little

Building the Ultimate Physique

When most bodybuilders think about their back, they invariably envision the latissimus dorsi muscles—the ones most responsible for that highly sought-after V-taper. Nevertheless, the lats are just one part of the total back picture. Other muscles, such as the infraspinatus, trapezius, teres minor and major, rhomboideus and erector spinae, are essential to the bodybuilder’s physique. If neglected, they lead to perpetually low contest placings. 

Rising Stars

the Editors

Rising Stars

With his recent Overall win at the NPC Max Muscle Naturals, Moji Oluwa established himself as one of the top natural bodybuilders in the United States. During the eight years he’s been competing, he’s won seven Overall championships and numerous other awards. At 5’6”, 190 pounds, his very symmetrical physique has no weak points, featuring thick, carved pecs; wide lats; high, peaked biceps; chiseled abs; and excellent thigh and calf development.

Angling for Delts

Eric Broser

Angling for Delts

Look up the word angling in the dictionary, and you’ll likely find something pertaining to the art or sport of fishing. Since most of us are “fishing” for shocking shoulders, I guess, in a way, it kind of makes sense. Still, angling, as I’m using it, means attacking the muscle from a variety of angles and/or planes of movement with different grips to generate new muscle growth.