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The Benefits of Strength Training: Gym machines versus free weights

Strength training can have positive impacts on your health. The question is – should you use free weights or weight machines? We weigh up the options.

Sam Gibbs
September 2019

Some call it ‘strength training’, others call it ‘weight’ or ‘resistance’ training. Whatever name you prefer, exercise that makes your muscles contract against external resistance can have profound impact on your fitness, weight loss and wellbeing - if done correctly.

On top of defending against Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression, studies show that strength training may also help you live a longer life.

Exercises that are considered ‘strength training’ include:

  • lifting free weights such as dumbbells
  • pushing or pulling against fixed weight machines at the gym
  • using your own bodyweight doing push-ups or squats, for example
  • any other form of resistance effort such as using medicine balls, sandbags or elastic resistance bands.

So, which strength-training exercises work best and is there any benefit to using free weights over weights machines? Or vice versa?

All forms of strength training can deliver health and wellbeing perks. And the best news is that anyone can do, and will benefit from, strength training, including kids and seniors, if they receive age-appropriate instruction.

The keys to successful strength training are receiving expert assessment and guidance in how to do each exercise (this is especially essential for beginners) and keeping up with the training routine. Doing strength training at least twice a week is recommended for adults.

Can weight machines at the gym make you strong?

“Machine weights can be handy for beginners, as they allow individuals to push or pull a weight through a given range of motion,” says exercise physiologist and trainer, Tommy Sloot. “This helps reduce the risk of injury when starting out, and the machines will often have helpful instruction reminders attached.” Through systems of levers and pulleys, machine weights are designed to work muscles on a fixed plane, Sloot explains, allowing users to efficiently target muscle sets and sculpt specific results.

When used within a strength-training program, machine weights can be appropriate for people of all ages, from seniors down to teens and even children, says the University of Newcastle’s Dr Jordan Smith, provided young people have developed competence in bodyweight exercise first and have access to suitable machines and instruction.

The downsides of weight machines are that the benefits are limited to specific muscle areas; access to machines comes with a recurring price tag, in the form of a gym membership or home machine purchase and maintenance; and few weight machines at gyms are sized correctly for kids and tweens. Exercisers of all ages may also crave more social fun and creativity than fixed machines can provide. 

Will working out with free weights improve your strength?

“Free weights not only improve the strength of ‘prime mover’ muscles, but also strengthen ‘stabiliser muscles’,” says Sloot. “These are the muscles used for ‘proprioceptive awareness’, which means knowing where your limbs and joints are in space.”

For this reason, free-weight strength training, like training with the use of bodyweight or resistance bands, can offer the bonus of building movement confidence, which may translate into fewer falls and injuries. This method of training is generally cheaper to access, can be done anywhere and may be easier to integrate into your busy schedule.

On the downside, the use of free weights requires closer guidance and supervision than machine training. It may also require ‘spotter’ buddies and comes with a greater focus on having good ‘form’ or ‘technique’.

What is the strength-training conclusion?

Our experts advise you to find the right balance for your body.

“Few trainers would recommend a purely machine-based weight resistance training program for any group of people,” says Smith. “And studies show major strength gains can be seen using both options,” agrees Sloot.

According to a recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 23% of adults do enough strength training, so the important message is that however you plan to work your muscles, see a trainer and start lifting!

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