The machines versus free weights debate has literally been going on for decades. Certain key figures that spearheaded this controversy, such as Arthur Jones, didn’t do a good job of representing this debate as his knowledge of sports science was insufficient. He was biased as the inventor of Nautilus and his arguments were rife with biomechanical error. I still believe that Arthur was great for the progression of our field (click HERE to read about his methods and beliefs) in many ways. Nevertheless, this debate is a legitimate debate, and the field of sports science has NEVER conducted a proper study to examine this question.
And to me, this is one of the most important studies that we as an industry should be focused on right now as the ramifications are huge. For years, I’ve listen to my colleagues blast machines, stating that they’re far inferior to free weights for purposes of inducing hypertrophic, strength, functional, and sport performance adaptations. I personally call bullshit on this entire premise (as I discussed from 10:30 – 15:55 in our recent podcast).
As I discussed in my Leg Press vs. Squat: The Final Chapter article, squats appear superior to leg presses, but both could be utilized for optimal results. However, this is besides the point. Squats utilize more musculature, stress more joints, and represent a more functional movement pattern compared to leg presses. So if you compare squats to leg presses, leg extensions, or leg curls, of course squats come out ahead for most purposes. However, if you compare squats to a lever machine squat, such as Tuff Stuff’s, then that’s a different story. They’re very similar in muscle activation and joint moments, but the machine is a bit more stable than the free-weight version (which could be an advantage of a disadvantage depending on how you look at it).
Here are the pros and cons of free weight and machine training:
Free Weight Advantages
- Less stable (less degrees of freedom) = more stability function (proprioception, balance, sensorimotor coordination, etc.)
- Way more affordable
- Portable and takes up less space
- Have natural bar paths
- Represent more natural movement patterns compared to many machines (ex: leg press, leg extension, leg curl) – they better replicate real life movement
- More specific to powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting
- Work well in concordance with bands and chains (accommodating resistance)
- More versatile, provide for plenty of variation
- Well suited for maximizing spinal strength and stability
- Better suited for lower body ballistics (ex: jump squats)
- Better suited for complex, highly integrated lifts
- Barbell exercises can be more metabolically demanding
- Seem to transfer better to machines compared to how machines transfer to free weight strength
- More stable = more prime mover activation
- Easier to learn (easier to stabilize) and more comfortable for certain lifters
- Can use to groove unique motor patterns (ex: smith machine for more upright squat)
- Fixed bar paths can prevent acute injury subsequent to lack of stabilization
- Certain machines maintain more constant tension on the muscles by utilizing variable resistance (ex: CAMs, plate-loaded, etc.)
- Can take spinal stability out of the equation to focus on the legs (ex: leg press, lying squat)
- Can be performed after heavy barbell lifts when stabilizers are fatigued to further tax the prime movers
- Better suited for targeted, more isolative lifts
- Well suited for initial stage rehabiliation
- Well suited for training the elderly
- Well suited for training beginners who lack confidence in free weights
- No spotters required
- Are self-contained (no additional equipment required)
- Isokinetic dynamometers are well suited for data collection and eccentric or isometric training
- The smith machine can be used for ballistics (ex: bench throws)
- Better suited for circuit training
Free Weight Disadvantages
- Certain lifts are awkward for certain body types
- Higher rates of acute injury
- Some lifters learn to rely on excessive momentum
- More correlated with sloppy form and contorting the body to accomplish a lift
- Many lifts have torque-angle curves and strength curves that stress a particular ROM but lighten up at the opposite ROM (ex: squats, good mornings)
- Certain lifts require spotters or rack supports
- Not always well suited for rotary and lateral vector movements
- Loading and unloading plates is cumbersome for strong lifters
- Certain machines don’t feel comfortable for certain body types
- Can have unnatural paths which can lead to pattern overload
- Higher rates of chronic injury
- Costlier to purchase and for maintenance
- Not always portable and takes up more space
- Less variety and versatility
- Aren’t always well-suited for particularly tall or short lifters
- Can lend themselves more to left/right imbalances
- Often weight stacks don’t accommodate advanced individuals
But it All Depends on the Machine…
As I mentioned previously, it all depends on the machine. A lever squat and hammer strength squat-lunge machine are very similar to the barbell counterparts. I’ve tested the muscle activation in both and the lever variations actually produced higher activation in certain primary muscles.
Hammer strength deadlift
Pendulum quadruped hip extension
With These Five Lifts, I Could Produce Better Lower Body Results than 98% of Trainers
Using just these five machine exercises, I bet that I could produce superior lower body hypertrophic and explosive power results to those of the vast majority of trainers just by teaching solid form and relying on optimal program design skills. Kinda blows the whole machines are inferior mantra out of the water, right (assuming I’m correct about my statement)?
Calling All Sports Science Students
I get emails all the time from students in sports science who are seeking a topic of study for their thesis. Well, here you go! This would be a landmark study that would be referenced many times over for years to come. It would go a long way in helping to settle the debate between free weights and machines. But you need to do the study justice. Hopefully some student out there has a great laboratory for testing and a great gym facility for training, which offers free weights along with the hammer strength squat lunge and a power squat (and more).
Sample Study Design
This could actually be an entire PhD thesis that could involve cross-sectional studies involving analysis such as EMG, joint moment, or perhaps force plates if you got creative, with a longitudinal training study to culminate the project. However, it could also just be a standalone study. Here are my thoughts:
- 2 groups of ten male lifters with at least 3 years of training experience.
- Group one performs barbell exercises
- Group two performs machine exercises
- 12 weeks
Prestesting and Posttesting:
Could involve any of the following:
- countermovement jump height,
- countermovement jump peak power (would require force plate),
- broad jump distance,
- 20 meter sprint time,
- body mass,
- body composition,
- muscle size (would need MRI),
- strength (perhaps on exercises not involved in the study so neither group has an advantage, perhaps isometric measures using a force plate)
- Both groups train 3 days/week.
- Group one performs barbell back squats, barbell RDLs, barbell deadlifts, barbell reverse lunges, barbell hip thrusts, barbell bench press, barbell incline press, and barbell bent over rows
- Group two performs lever squats, hammer strength RDLs, hammer strength deadlifts, lever reverse lunges, cable pull-throughs, hammer strength chest press, hammer strength incline press, hammer strength bent over rows
- Daily undulating periodization is utilized so that 3 sets of 6-8 reps are performed on Monday, 3 sets of 8-10 reps are performed on Wednesday, and 3 sets of 4-6 reps are performed on Friday
- Monday and Friday involves back squats (and lever squats), RDLs (and hammer strength RDLs), bench press (and hammer strength chest press), and bent over rows (and hammer strength bent over rows)
- Wednesday involves reverse lunges (and lever reverse lunges), incline press (and hammer strength incline press), and hip thrusts (and cable-pull throughs)
- Progressive overload is utilized
Be Sure to Measure Hypertrophic, Strength, and Performance Adaptations, along with Injuries
As you can see, I included a wide variety of data which will help answer a lot of questions. I suppose you could add in a power component if you wanted – power cleans versus the power trainer, jump squats versus the bear, etc. (see Powernetics as they have some cool looking power machines).
I Will Help You!
I would love to be an author on the paper so I’d be happy to help out!
Yes, doing squats will produce better hypertrophic and vertical jump results compared to just doing leg extensions or leg presses. However, what if free weights were pitted against plate-loaded lever machines? Then what would happen? Machines represent an entire continuum, with more isolative movements on one end and more integrative movements on the other end. Which would be superior for hypertrophic gains? What about gains in jumping and sprinting? How big would the differences be – marginal or huge? Which is safer?
Regarding hypertrophy training, would adding leg extensions to a squat protocol add or detract from gains in quad mass, and would adding leg curls to a deadlift protocol add or detract from gains in hamstring mass? Are isolation movements not well-suited for inducing high levels of metabolic stress? Keep in mind that seated leg curls have been shown to increase hamstring flexibility to the same extent as static stretching of the hamstrings, but they likely did so via increasing muscle length rather than increasing stretch-tolerance, and leg extensions have been shown to occlude the distal quadriceps and produce significant hypoxia during sets taken to failure. Can these exercises then be utilized to impose specific adaptations depending on the goal?
Until proper studies are conducted, all we can do is speculate, and nobody really knows the answer. Please check out the research below to help you formulate your opinion.
Some Links to Existing Research
Here is some existing research on free weights versus machines:
Roundtable Discussion: Machines Versus Free Weights – linked to pdf – check out Carpinelli and Stone’s arguments – amazing discussion with lots of references to pull up
Training-specific muscle architecture adaptation after 5-wk training in athletes – this is the best training study IMO
A Comparison of Two Methods of raining on the Development of Muscular Strength and Endurance – this is the worst IMO – WTF is rhythmic isometric exercise haha?
Hot Topics: Machine Versus Free Weights – pdf is linked
A Comparison of Muscle Activity during Free Motion versus Fixed Resistance Exercises – Case study by manufacturers but good researcher (Rhea)
Glutes to the Max – not published by good researcher (Porcari)