Machine vs Free Weights: Which is Best for Muscle Growth?

Is there a right answer?

When you walk into the gym for the first time, you need to decide straight away if you are going to use a machine to work out or take a chance on free weights like the barbell or dumbbells. But in the debate of machine vs free weights, which one is best for muscle growth? Find out more.

This might sound like a tricky question, no? Which is best for muscle growth, gym machines or free weights? To help us answer that, we use the expertise of Mike Israetel. Dr Mike Israetel, PhD in Sport Physiology and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization, is a well-respected professor in the bodybuilding community. He doesn’t only talk about workouts and fitness tips, he often dives deep into health and nutrition.

See what he had to say below.

woman performs lat pulldown in gymSource: FitNish Media on Unsplash

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Machine vs Free Weights: Which is Best for Muscle Growth?

So which one is it, then? Machine or free weights if you are trying to build muscle? According to Israetel, the framing of the question is already wrong.

The correct question would be which exercise better targets the muscle we want to work out.

With the answer in mind, then you can choose if you use a machine or free weights. And how do you choose the best exercise? There are 7 training principles which you should follow:

  1. Specificity – “an exercise to build chest,” then get rid of all other exercises that do not target the chest such as squats or curls
  2. Overload – if it doesn’t give a good overload, choose exercises that have a high raw stimulus magnitude, if it gives you an amazing pump with just a few reps
  3. Fatigue management – exercises ranked highest on the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio
  4. SRA (stimulus recovery adaptation) – exercises that don’t bother your joints or other muscles you need in the next few days of working out
  5. Variation – exercises you’ve done recently and are stale for muscle growth should be tossed away
  6. Phase potentiation – very advanced, but if you want, pick an exercise that doesn’t have a lot of eccentric loading if you are just after an active rest phase
  7. Individualisation – pick your favourite from the few exercises left on the list

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After applying each of these principles to a pool of exercises, you end up getting rid of exercises that would not be great for you and you end up with a small number of exercises which are the best ones for your goal.

Source: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

There you go, that is how you actually answer the debate of which is best for muscle growth: machine vs free weights.

To have a full understanding of what Mike Israetel has to say on the matter, watch the video below in its integrity.

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Using free weights for muscle growth offers several benefits compared to other forms of resistance training. Here are some key advantages:

  1. Functional Strength: Free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells, allow for a more natural range of motion and require greater stabilization compared to machines. This helps develop functional strength, as you engage multiple muscles and train them to work together, enhancing coordination and balance.
  2. Muscle Activation: Free weights often require the use of stabilizer muscles to maintain proper form and control throughout the exercise. This results in increased muscle activation and recruitment, leading to more comprehensive muscle development.
  3. Range of Exercises: Free weights provide a wide range of exercises and variations, allowing you to target specific muscles or muscle groups more effectively. You can perform compound exercises (e.g., squats, deadlifts, bench presses) that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, promoting overall strength and muscle growth.
  4. Core Strength: Many free-weight exercises require core stability and engagement to maintain proper posture and control. This strengthens the core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back, leading to improved functional movement and injury prevention.
  5. Muscle Imbalance Correction: Free weights can help address muscle imbalances more effectively than machines. Since each side of the body must work independently, you can identify and target weaker areas, promoting balanced muscle development and reducing the risk of injuries.
  6. Progressive Overload: Free weights allow for easier progression in terms of increasing resistance. You can gradually increase the weight to continually challenge your muscles, leading to progressive overload—a key principle for muscle growth and strength gains.
  7. Versatility and Accessibility: Free weights are relatively easy to acquire and can be used in various settings, such as home gyms or commercial fitness facilities. They offer flexibility in terms of exercise selection and can be used for different training goals, whether it’s hypertrophy, strength, or power development.

It’s important to note that while free weights offer numerous benefits, proper form and technique are crucial to minimizing the risk of injury. If you’re new to weightlifting, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a qualified trainer or coach to ensure safe and effective training practices.

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Leg Press MachineSource: Scott Webb / Pexels
Leg Machine

Using gym machines for muscle growth provides several benefits that can complement and enhance your training routine. Here are some advantages:

  1. Ease of Use: Gym machines are designed with simplicity in mind, making them accessible and user-friendly, especially for beginners. They often have clear instructions and predefined paths of motion, which can help maintain proper form and reduce the risk of injury.
  2. Targeted Muscle Isolation: Machines allow for precise muscle targeting as they often focus on specific muscle groups. This can be beneficial when you want to isolate and develop specific muscles or address muscle imbalances. By adjusting the machine settings, you can target and strengthen individual muscles more effectively.
  3. Injury Prevention: Gym machines provide stability and support during exercises, reducing the risk of injuries, especially for individuals with limited mobility or stability issues. They can provide a safer option for those recovering from injuries or dealing with joint pain.
  4. Increased Training Variety: Modern gym machines offer a wide range of exercises and variations that can help add variety to your workouts. This variety can prevent boredom, challenge your muscles in different ways, and stimulate muscle growth by introducing new stimuli to your body.
  5. Beginner-Friendly: Gym machines often feature adjustable weight stacks or resistance levels, allowing beginners to start with lighter loads and gradually progress as they become stronger. This gradual progression can help build confidence and create a foundation for more advanced training methods.
  6. Enhanced Muscle Focus: Machines provide a controlled environment for training, limiting the involvement of secondary muscles and allowing you to concentrate on the target muscle group. This can be advantageous when you want to emphasize muscle hypertrophy or improve muscle-mind connection.
  7. Injury Rehabilitation: Gym machines can be valuable in the rehabilitation process by providing a controlled environment for movements. They allow individuals recovering from injuries to isolate and strengthen specific muscles with reduced risk of further injury.
  8. Convenience and Time Efficiency: Gym machines are often arranged in a compact space, allowing for efficient workouts and minimizing the need for extensive setup or equipment changes. This can be beneficial in busy gym settings or when time is limited.

It’s important to note that while gym machines offer benefits, they may not fully replicate the demands of functional movements or engage stabilizer muscles as effectively as free weights. Combining machine exercises with free weights and other forms of resistance training can provide a well-rounded approach to muscle growth and overall fitness. Consulting with a fitness professional can help you create a balanced and individualized training program based on your goals and needs.

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