By John Amtmann and Ashley Kelly
We recently received e-mails asking, “What’s better, machines or free weights?” Progressive resistance exercise is the fancy name for the myriad terms referring to exercise that focuses on musculoskeletal fitness such as strength training, weight lifting, resistance training and weight training. Progressive resistance simply means that we can change the resistance of the apparatus to suit the individual needs of the user, and resistance can be increased to adjust to the increasing fitness of the individual. One common type of resistance exercise uses free weights, and consists of barbells and dumbbells that allow for adjustment of total resistance by adding or removing circular weights to the bar. Another type of resistance exercise is a weight machine. A weight machine is usually designed for a specific body part, and the resistance is easily changed by selecting the appropriate weight simply by inserting a pin. Which type of strength training is better? Well, let’s look at some of the advantages of each:
Versatile: Can work many different muscle groups and full range of motion with just a basic barbell and dumbbell system.
Do not take up much space.
Anyone of any size or shape can use free weights.
Require little maintenance.
Cheaper to buy. One machine can cost thousands of dollars.
Uses entire body. Weights need to be carried from shelf to workout area, and the body requires stabilization while using free weights for many exercises.
Can easily be used at home.
Machines are more expensive, but most are easy to use. Photos provided by John AmtmannMachine
Safe: Help lifter maintain correct form. To complete a set to exhaustion usually does not require a spotter to assist the lifter in returning the weight to the starting point.
May be more efficient at exercising muscle groups difficult to target with free weights.
Simple to use: Some free-weight exercises require skill.
Do not take much time to use: Quick and easy to change resistance.
Many machines support the body, and can be used during injury rehabilitation or when training uninjured body parts.
Useful for beginners and elderly who may not be able to balance free-weights.
Recall from the first “Fitness for Arborists” article that the goal of the arborist is to improve strength and endurance in a balanced fashion, and the program outlined included exercises for all of the major muscle groups. The recommended volume was one set of 8 to 15 repetitions. Recall also, that the principle of overload states that the system targeted (cardiovascular or musculoskeletal) must be exposed to a controlled stress that the body is not accustomed to in order to improve fitness.
We’ll go one step further in this article: Intensity is the single most important factor in determining your body’s response to the fitness program in which you engage.* Considering the long hours of arborists, understand that one quality set is as good as, or better than, multiple low-intensity sets. So the workout that focuses more on intensity will be more time-efficient to the tree professional who may already be working many hours each week.
Arborists spend much of their work time trying to figure out how to most efficiently complete the task at hand, and we often ask ourselves and each other, “What’s the easiest way to safely and effectively get the job done?” When it comes to strength training, and improving overall musculoskeletal fitness, we have to use the opposite logic. The question should be, “What can we do to safely make our strength training exercise more difficult or more intense?” The most efficient way to increase intensity is by attempting more repetitions and/or by increasing resistance when the prescribed number of repetitions have been completed.
So, what’s better, free-weights or machines? Answer: It’s not a matter of what you use but how you use your strength training equipment. If you exercise with focus and intensity, performing quality sets with proper technique that cause an overload to your musculoskeletal system, then your strength fitness will improve whether you are using free-weights, machines, sand-bags or water filled jugs. If there’s a good gym on your way home from work and you can efficiently train using machines at the gym, do it. If not, and you have to train at home using free-weights, great. Both methods have potential if you put forth the effort.
John Amtmann is a professor in his twenty-second year teaching for the Applied Health Science program at Montana Tech in Butte, Mont. He works in the summer for Alpine Tree Services in Butte, Mont. If you have questions about health and fitness for arborists, he can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Ashley Kelly is an undergraduate student at Montana Tech.
* Many people mistake “intensity” for heaving the weight, using momentum to complete additional repetitions that would not otherwise be possible. Proper technique includes:
Slow, controlled movement speed.
Good posture with a stable base.
Breathing – do not hold your breath at any point during a repetition.