It’s an age-old question that’s weighed heavily on the shoulders of every gym-goer – ‘would I be better off if I used machines or free weights?’
Recently, I spoke with a mate of mine from uni about this topic. He’d seen a video in which professional bodybuilder Phil Heath describes how his chest workouts are now focused solely on machines – since tearing a pec on heavy bench press. My mate asked, ‘Heath reckons he can build the same amount of muscle like this, do you think it’s true?’ It was a pretty interesting question which I thought I would look into.
For Phil Heath, the answer could very well be yes – but for the majority of people, free-weight exercises should form the basis of a solid training program. Resistance machines have their place in specifically isolating a muscle – and in Heath’s case, he could isolate his chest with a seated press machine. However, what is missing from a machine exercise is stability. When lifting with free-weights, your joints and supporting muscles have to work to control the weight as well as the target muscle. This method can therefore increase your size AND strength. Machines do not work these stabilisers as effectively.
Phil Learney, strength coach at London’s ‘Ultimate Performance’, who counts some of the country’s top rugby players as clients, says “If you consider the joint as a fulcrum on a see-saw – if it is weak, the see-saw becomes weak and unstable. The stability is a large facet of strength.” What works for you is going to be different to the demands of a pro-bodybuilder. Learney adds, “Professional bodybuilders can sacrifice joint stability to some degree as their sport doesn’t require it.” Gaining strength from free-weight exercises will not only help you progress in the gym; it can protect you from injury – whether that’s in work, on the football or rugby pitch, or in later life.
Talking specifically about the bench press, Learney pays particular attention to building up the stabilising, supportive muscles when training his clients. “If I want to make someone’s bench stronger I train back, shoulders and triceps more”, he added. It was this method that strength coach Joe DeFranco used when training WWE wrestler Triple H. Pained by years of in-ring activity and high volume training, DeFranco had Triple H including resistance-band pull aparts in his routine to grow the upper back and traps. These supporting muscles could therefore keep Triple H’s shoulders healthy and stabilise him on the bench press. This paid off a heck of a lot. Coupling this small addition with a routine based around free-weight lifts, the former WWE Champion was able to perform over 30 reps of a 100kg bench press – pain free. Adopt a similar approach and you too can smash your way through new records.
Machine-work can exist in a solid training program but it should be secondary to free-weights, which Learney suggests: “The unstable movements with free weights would come first in a session, invariably.” Certain people, such as the disabled or elderly, may benefit from greater machine work, but they are relatively small sections of the population. Generally-speaking, free-weights are the key to size and strength. Even if you are injured and have been advised to stick to machines, this would be a short-term process – until that injury has healed.
Lots of people will opt for machine-only routines because they appear easier. Getting away with not recruiting smaller muscles and joints is a piece of cake, right? Think again – your body responds best to new challenges. When you train with free-weights, Learney suggests our bodies will “engage more fibres through either load or speed of the movement. This taps into fibres that wouldn’t usually be used. It’s how under huge amounts of stress people become temporarily stronger. It’s a survival thing.” Not only do these untapped fibres provide new grounds for growth, but in stimulating the joints and smaller muscles, you can progress far easier when it comes to lifting heavy.
Put simply, free-weights provide the biggest bang-for-your-buck. You can build muscle with machines – but you can also build muscle with free-weights while gaining the extra strength benefits. Why settle for less when you can have more?