A lot of people have the terrible misconception that only free weights are able to build serious amounts of muscle mass. When in reality, nutrition and rest aside, taking a muscle through its contractile range under sufficient tension is how you build muscle. It doesn’t matter if you achieve this tension using a free weight or machine, what’s important is creating tension in the target muscle to elicit the adaptive response that causes the muscle to hypertrophy (grow).
You must learn how to use both free weights and machines to achieve optimum muscle growth. They are both essential tools you must have in your arsenal if you ever want to achieve maximum results.
The whole meat head mentality that “free weights are a must to build muscle” is complete BS!
I’m not saying that free weights are bad or that one is better than the other at building muscle, because they both have their place and advantages/disadvantages over each other.
Advantages of Free Weights
Some people really like the freedom of movement that only free weights allow, and in some cases, free weights provide a greater range of motion. Flat dumbbell press and shoulder press are good examples of exercise where free weights work better because the hands come closer together on the concentric giving a better contraction at the top of the movement.
Free weights offer great freedom of movement but take care not to get carried away with lifting weights that are too heavy and you can’t properly control. Most injuries in the gym are caused by the misuse of free weights.
A common problem I see when people are using free weights is that they tend to go too heavy, lifting by ego or because they’ve been told heavyweight is essential for growth. Dumbbell press is a prime example, where you see guys having to put extreme effort into balancing the weight and forcing it from point A to point B, recruiting every muscle in the general vicinity to move the weight.
…that is NOT what building muscle is about!
Sure, take advantage of the strengthening effect of stabilizer muscles. Developing strong stabilizer muscles by using free weights will allow you to lift with better form and move more weight over time.
But be sure that you’re lifting with good form, with a weight you can handle and most of the force is being placed on the target muscle.
Advantages of Machines
Machines provide constant isolated tension to the target muscle through the full range of motion, and safely when heavy loads are used.
Some new evidence shows that machines have the ability to increase muscle strength as effectively as free weight can.
Researchers from Valdosta State University took the strength stats of two groups on the free weight bench press. Both groups were then placed on a 10 week training program, with one group using a free weight bench press and the other on a machine bench press. After the 10 weeks both groups were assessed for strength gains on the free weight bench, comparing their strength from before the 10 week training program. What they found was that BOTH groups equality increased their strength by 10%.
Because machines provide complete guided assistance you will recruit less stabilizer muscles, meaning that more focused isolation and tension can be placed on a single target muscle group. This is the ideal environment for bringing out lagging body parts.
There are some cases where machines and cables can actually create more tension and stimulation in a muscle. We all know how great bicep curls are at building guns, that’s why they’re a staple in most bicep training routines. However, because dumbbells and barbells use gravity to create force, they’re at a disadvantage over machines.
Let me explain…
When curling a barbell for example, gravity is the load vector, so the maximal point of tension placed on the biceps is when the forearm is perpendicular (90 degrees) with the floor.
At the halfway point of a bicep curl exercise with a barbell or dumbbell is when the muscle receives maximal stimulation. The further away you move from that halfway (90 degrees) the less work is required of the biceps and therefor less stimulation for growth.
When you start to curl a dumbbell there is less resistance at the starting position, the resistance peaks at the halfway point, then becomes less at the top of the range.
Now, when using a preacher curl machine the load is not gravity. You get a much more constant tension through the full range… more tension – more stimulation – more growth!
Plus, the added advantage of a preacher curl machine is that it provides more time under tension and allows for greater isolation.
You can build strength and size with free weights alone, but if you want maximum hypertrophy gains you must incorporate both machines and free weights into your training routine.