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Free Weights or Machines?

blog May 04, 2024

Free Weights or Machines: Which Should You Use?

What is your Goal?

When it comes to choosing between free weights and machines for your workout, the first and foremost consideration should be your specific fitness goal. Are you aiming for hypertrophy (muscle building)? Is your training geared towards a particular sport, like powerlifting or Olympic lifting? Are you focused on enhancing coordination and stability? Your goal plays a pivotal role in determining whether free weights or machines are the better choice, as each option brings its own benefits and drawbacks.

What’s Getting Tired First?

In the pursuit of changing your body composition and, particularly, building muscle, pushing yourself close to failure during exercises is crucial. This entails reaching a point where you can't complete any more repetitions by the end of your set. However, it's equally important to pay attention to what is actually causing this failure – a concept known as "task failure."

Task Failure vs. Muscular Failure

Two types of failure come into play: task failure and muscular failure. 

  • Task failure occurs when factors like coordination breakdown, cardiovascular fatigue, or secondary muscle groups taking over result in the inability to continue the exercise. 
  • In contrast, muscular failure is when the target muscle itself reaches its limits before other factors come into play. When your objective is to maximize muscle growth, striving for muscular failure becomes paramount.

Free Weights Can Lead to Task Failure

Consider a comparison between a barbell bent over row and a machine row or cable row. The barbell bent over row is a free weight movement that demands substantial internal stability from your core and lower back. Consequently, you might find yourself reaching task failure before muscular failure. In this scenario, the support muscles and stability components give out before the primary muscles like the upper back muscles, rear delts, and rhomboids.

Machines Can Help You Reach Muscular Failure

Machines and supported cable rows offer a different dynamic. With added stability, especially through features like chest supports, you are more likely to achieve muscular failure rather than task failure. This means that the muscle you intend to target receives the maximum stimulus before other factors intervene.

Remember Your Goal

In the debate between free weights and machines, there's no definitive winner. The key is aligning your exercise choice with your primary goal. Rather than focusing on how much work you can perform, prioritize how much effective stimulus your target muscle requires for growth. Ultimately, the choice between free weights and machines hinges on tailoring your movements to suit your specific fitness objectives.

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