weight machines, such as those by Nautilus or Cybex, the best way to build
strength? Or are “free weights,” meaning barbells and dumbbells, more
effective – or are they only for bodybuilders? If you want to heed the advice
of fitness experts – who now believe that a well-rounded fitness program
should include some for of strength training in addition to aerobic exercise
such as running or cycling – you’ll have to decide between free weights and
any health club or Y has both types of equipment these days, as do sporting-good
stores. Both types of weight training have advantages and disadvantages:
machines’ resistance usually comes form a stack of weights. Some utilize heavy
springs or giant rubber bands, which may be less capable of the gradual
increases in resistance suitable for weight training. Some large machines,
called multi-station gyms, allow you to do a variety of exercises a full-body
workout – from arm curls to legs extensions.
Safety. There’s less
chance of injury when you work out with machines, since most of them guide your
motions, control the weights’ movements, and make you maintain the right
posture. You can’t, for instance, drop a weight on your foot. Your lower back
is protected, since you are usually seated and belted. You can start at a very
low level and increase the load in small increments.
Focus on a single muscle group. This
lets you isolate one group – for instance, the biceps or quadriceps (in front
of the thigh) – for effective training.
force you to contract a muscle through its full range of movement.
Easy to use and fun. For
novices, machines are not as intimidating as free weights and are thus a good
way to get started. No skill is required. Well-suited for the elderly.
Calibrated resistance. Some
machines are designed so that the resistance varies appropriately as you move
through the arc.
Expensive. Many machines
cost more than a thousand dollars and are thus likely to be seen only at health
clubs or schools. Less costly machines may be unstable or require changing
cables to switch from one exercise to another.
Less versatile. Each
machine has a limited number of functions. Each maneuver takes place on only one
plane. You usually can’t vary an exercise slightly to work the muscles
free weights, you can’t put machines in the closet or under your bed.
Poor Fit. Though
they are adjustable, machines can be uncomfortable or even unsafe if you are
dumbbell is a short bar with a weight (sometimes adjustable) on each end. A
barbell is longer, has adjustable weights, and is generally used with a padded
bench and rack.
than machines. A basic set
costs about $100 on sale, double that if you include the rack and bench – so
free weights are the natural choice for home equipment.
Unlimited variety. Anything you can do on even the most elaborate machine
can also be done with free weights – and more. While machines are limited in
the number of exercises they permit, you can work virtually any muscle from any
angle with a set of free weights.
Whole-body workout. Free
weights work more than one muscle group at a time – for instance, lifting a
barbell over your head works muscles in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.
They allow movement in three dimensions.
training improves overall balance.
Injury. If you lift free
weights incorrectly, you can easily injure yourself.
lift weights safely, you need a training partner, or “spotter,” to guide
Skill required. Requires
some skill and practice to balance the weight, especially at first. A qualified
instructor should teach you proper technique.
to do? Most
beginners who belong to a health club or gym start with weight machines and
supplement them eventually with free weights. If you’re buying equipment for
home, you probably should start with a basic set of free weights, unless you are
certain that the investment in costly machines is worth it.