Part II

By: Dave Mansfield MA, MSPT, HFI, CSCS

 Free Weights or machines? Or does it matter?

 In Part I of this discussion we answered the question: Is strength training safe for children and young teens? This time we will discuss some of the pros and cons around training with free weights vs. training with machines.  Generally speaking, this discussion is applicable to adult trainees as well as children and teens.  Of course, if you coach young or future Powerlifters you know that they will need to lift free weights eventually in order to train the “power lifts”.  Should free weights be a part of the regular strength training programs for youngsters?

The short answer is “yes”. Training with barbells or dumbbells, particularly movements performed in standing, challenges the body’s ability to balance and requires good coordination skills.  Free weights also challenge the adult coach’s organizational abilities since keeping track of all those loose plates and making sure that the bars are properly loaded and secured while also watching your youthful charges can be difficult! The athletes must first be trained to perform the movement flawlessly using nothing more than body weight and a broomstick, or at most, extremely light resistance.  Only after they have mastered the correct technique should they be allowed to add resistance to the bar.  In addition to coaching the athletes you will need to provide spotting while they perform their exercises. Since free weight training requires more technical skill than machine based strength training good form throughout each repetition of each set cannot be overemphasized. The coach needs to be on the alert for even small changes in technique that suggest a lack of focus or fatigue as bad habits are easily acquired and difficult to break!  In addition, lack of attention can quickly lead to injury.  It isn’t that these problems cannot occur with machine or body weight training but with free weights the risks seem greater.

Despite the risks involved, a properly designed and executed free weight based training program will deliver the most “bang for your, training, buck”! These movements require far more involvement of other, supportive muscle groups and balance than the “equivalent” machine exercises.  This is particularly true for exercises performed in standing such as the overhead press, deadlift, squat, low pull, etc. The coach must be well versed in the techniques for these lifts in order to correct technique flaws early in the training process.

Let’s compare a small muscle so called “isolation” movement done with free weights vs. the machine based version.  The dumb bell or the bar bell biceps curl performed in standing. Before the athlete can initiate the curl the first muscles to contract are the calf muscles in order to provide balance for the upcoming movements.  After that the legs and hip muscles must contract to establish a stable base.  Next the Core contracts (the abdominals, lumbar paraspinals, hip flexors and extensors etc.  After that the thoracic paraspinals and the parascapular muscles contract to provide a solid proximal base for the impending distal movement (the biceps curl itself).  Then as the curl is initiated the hands, wrists, and forearms must tense to control the moving bar. Whew! That’s a lot going on to perform a simple curl! Contrast this with the seated, machine-based version where the equipment is secure on its platforms and the weights glide on well-lubricated chrome tubing.  True you will work your biceps and most likely your hands, wrists and forearms but very little else.  Of course, the machine is safer since you can’t drop anything on yourself or your friends (provided everyone keeps their fingers out from between the plates on the weight stack). Safer? I suppose so. Effective? Sort of. Efficient training? No way!  All this happens with a “simple” properly executed biceps curl! Just imagine what goes on when your athlete performs a barbell back squat!  I won’t bore you with the details.  Let’s just say that you I can’t think of any muscles in the entire body that don’t work during a squat… well maybe, maybe your eye muscles don’t work more than just a little during a heavy squat.  Try it yourself.  If you think I’m mistaken then you probably need a little training in how to properly perform a squat.  What do you get on a Smith machine or Hack squat? Well, aside from sore knees.  Not much, eh? Leg press? Not even close! Just what I thought.

Of course, some exercises, some important exercises, simply can’t be done in standing.  The bench press is the most common.  Nevertheless, a free weight bench press, like the squat and standing barbell curl provides much more bang for the training buck! In order to perform the movement correctly the trainee must firmly push the feet into the floor (calf muscles, hamstrings/glutes etc.), next he or she must use the quadriceps to drive the shoulders down and back into the bench (make sure you squeeze the butt cheeks tight here). Of course, the Core muscles must be tight to provide the bridge. Then the shoulder blades must be squeezed tightly together to give the upper body a solid base to push from.  After all this, you squeeze the bar very tight (hands, wrists, forearms) and drive your head down tight onto the bench (cervical paraspinals). Then, and only then, do you begin your bench press.  Did I hear anyone say that the reason you do the bench press is to strengthen your “pecs” and “tris”?  Oh really, is that all that the bench does for you? Think again. Do all of the above with dumbbells rather than a barbell if you want to get serious. Now consider how many muscles go into a seated “bench press” motion with a weight stack.

Case closed!

Other exercises that may be exceptions are chin-ups or pull-ups.  These require much more coordination and bring far more muscle groups into play than, say, cable pull downs.  That being said, however, if your charges cannot do a single bodyweight chin-up the cable pulldown is what you will need.  As soon as they can do a few bodyweight chins, however, you will want to get them away from those cables.

Note, again,  that to provide a safe training environment for your young athletes you will need to keep track of all those pesky, loose plates.  Make sure that the bars are properly loaded and secured. Provide careful and timely technique training cues. Spot your lifters to assure safety and make sure they do not try to progress the resistance faster than their technique and strength gains will safely allow.  That is a lot of responsibility.  Of course you will also need to supervise exercises done on machines but you do have a larger safety margin there.  In the end, for practical reasons, you may find that a judicious mix of free weight and machine-based exercises works best for you and your facility and the athletes who train with you.

Of course, if the athletes intend to compete in Powerlifting or Weightlifting they will need to train the competition movements using free weights.  At any rate, the basic guidelines still apply. Do not let them try to progress too fast, make sure that technique comes first and is flawless.  Discourage young lifters from seeking a maximum single. Even in competitions pre-teen and early teen lifters should not be pushed beyond their comfort zone with excess poundage.  Keep them fresh, enthusiastic and injury free and they will have many years to enjoy their sport and to push their limits as they mature.

©  2007 rev. 9-20-2018  Dave Mansfield