FREE WEIGHTS vs. MACHINES
Jerry BrainumScience and Practical Applications of the Key Muscle-Building Tools
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.
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.