For some, the debate about the benefits of a particular piece of sporting equipment has long since turned into a hullabaloo: some will never touch a barbell (as exercise with it is fraught with injury), others will never go near an exercise machine (as it is not hardcore). It’s time to dismantle the beliefs of both sides, lay out the reasonable arguments and stop the pointless argument.
The dogmas of the free exercisers
Exercise equipment is dysfunctional.
They limit the movement to a fixed trajectory and the force obtained this way is of little help in the after-action.
Stabilizers are not fixed on machines
You don’t have to exert any effort to stabilize, so these important muscles get no useful exercise.
And the trajectory of the trainer is not suitable for everyone
It is not possible to adapt machines to everyone’s body type, so gym routines are not suitable for everyone.
Free weights give more power
Since it is more difficult to coordinate movement, the central nervous system works more efficiently, which results in greater strength gains.
Free weights cause more muscle micro-traumas
And this is one of the mechanisms of hypertrophy.
Block worshippers’ tenets
Tension is tension
Muscles do not understand what loads them – a separate piece of equipment, a trainer, a block module, their own weight, a wheelbarrow of coal, a haystack, etc. Either way, mechanical work happens, the muscles adapt and grow.
And this music will last forever.
A competently designed machine provides a constant load throughout the range of motion (and even increases the load in those areas where the muscles are ‘stronger’). The free weight is a ‘dead’ weight, up to two-thirds of the movement can occur with far less than maximum intensity.
On a trainer it is easier to focus the load on the target groups
The stabilizing advantage of free weights is also a disadvantage since the load can be distributed over different muscle groups thus neglecting the target muscle group. A training machine, on the other hand, allows you to concentrate more on it.
And with free weights it is easier to perform
Here the fixed trajectory of the exerciser, which is often called a drawback, suddenly becomes an advantage – you can not “help” other muscle groups, removing a useful load from the working one.
Trainers are less stressful on the nervous system
While stimulation of the CNS is important for developing maximal strength, you shouldn’t overwork it. “‘Nervous’ fatigue leads to decreased dopamine levels and overproduction of cortisol. If, for example, you are training purely for hypertrophy, then CNS fatigue is best reduced.
It’s safe to give up on exercise machines.
Although you can rock perfectly well without rejection, it does stimulate hypertrophy (a number of studies confirm this).
And yes, you can work up to a refusal on any piece of equipment, with a basic barbell or dumbbell. However, multi-joint exercises with free weights, when completed until failure, overwork the body to such an extent that there is more harm than good. A training machine allows you to work out with minimal risks.
So who is right?
Both sides are right in some respects, but wrong in others. There are nuances: nuances are important; in some conditions, free weight machines are more effective, in others, fixed machines are more effective.
Consider the main causes of hypertrophy.
4 triggers of muscle growth
1 – Muscle fibre fatigue
To quote Professor Zatsiorski, “If muscle fibres are recruited but not fatigued, then they have not trained”. A study by Cameron and Mitchell (2012) confirms this statement: working up to failure for 8 weeks resulted in the same weight gain at both 30% and 80% of maximum load.
2 – Muscle micro-traumas
For a long time, this was thought to be the only cause of hypertrophy. Injuries sustained during exercise trigger recovery processes, which leads to growth.
Most micro-traumas can be sustained by using relatively high weights (70-85%) in a medium repetition range (5-8, sometimes up to 10 in an approach) and stretching the muscle under load.
3 – Activation of mTOR
The intracellular mTOR signalling pathway triggers protein synthesis (leading to hypertrophy). Most of all, this anabolic response is stimulated by stretching the muscle under significant load and prolonging the eccentric phase (weight dropping). Simply and practically speaking, slow negatives (4-6 seconds) and pauses in the stretched position (a couple of seconds).
4 – Local growth factors, lactate
The good old-fashioned burning associated with lactate accumulation is also traditionally appreciated by bodybuilders. And science suddenly says they’re right!
Lactate itself stimulates growth (Oishi et al. 2015, Nalbandian and Takeda 2016) by increasing stem cell activity, increasing follistatin levels and decreasing myostatin levels. A correlation between lactate and IGF (insulin-like growth factor) has also been observed. Accumulation is also increased by prolonged time under load (approach up to 40-70 seconds) with constant strain on the working muscles.
And how do exercise equipment deal with this?
Basic, old-school and vaunted free weights have a distinct advantage on only one point – more micro-trauma. Plus a slightly higher mTOR signal. But more muscle fatigue, lactate accumulation and local growth factors in exercisers – at a lower neurological cost.
Here is a comparison table of totally free weights, exercisers and the intermediate link – blocks.
Let me explain why.
- Micro muscle injuries
- Muscle injuries are related not so much to weight as to load distribution along the fibers – the more unevenly they are recruited, the more micro-traumas they suffer. That’s why muscles hurt the most after a new, unfamiliar exercise. And then, when you get used to them, even with a heavier load (working weight) muscles ache less.
- It is more difficult to coordinate movements with free weights, which is why there are more micro-traumas. You get used to training trajectories much faster.
And here trainers are better. Why? I have three reasons:
Failure increases the neurological cost of exercise. That is why it is more useful to reach it in less ‘nervous’ movements: isolating on the block/trainer, isolating with free weights, multi-joint exercises on the block/trainer.
It is safer to work up to failure on a machine, especially in multi-joint movements.
It is more difficult to cheat on machines by helping the working muscles with other muscle groups. The better you work your target muscles, the stronger and bigger they will become.
Local Growth Factors
Studies have already shown that local factors have a direct effect on the working muscle group, which is why training with blood flow restriction (using sleeves, bandages, etc.) is especially effective. However, the same effect can be achieved by extending the time under load (up to 40-70 seconds) while maintaining constant tension (trying to contract the muscle for the whole repetition). This is achieved better on machines and blocks than with free weights, the load from which varies in different parts of the amplitude.
The signal path of mTor and accumulation of lactate are related not so much to the type of load (both barbell and exerciser can be effectively stimulated), as to the duration of approach, pauses in the stretched position and the emphasis on the negative:
That said, I should point out that too long of a negative in “big” barbell exercises (stanova, squat, etc.) more often than not leads to poor technique.
So which is better?
And here we get to the simple answers.
Free weights are better when :
- The main goal is overall whole body strength
- You aim at micro-traumas, working with rather high weights (70-85%) in a medium repetition range (5-10) and loading the target muscles in a stretched position
- Want to maximise gains by doing a minimum of exercise
Trainers/blocks are better when :
- You can’t concentrate on working the right muscle group with free weights
- You rely more on local growth factors than on micro-traumas
- You prefer to work until you reach failure, which causes muscle fatigue.
- Free weights and exercisers are equal when
You put on the mTOR signalling pathway (slow negative, pause in a stretched position) and lactate accumulation (40-70 seconds under load). But again, technique is harder to follow with free weights when tightening.
No black and white, Neo
Choose the right training tool for your tastes. Categorically chopping ‘no machines’ or ‘no weights’ is the same as declaring ‘no carbs’ or ‘no fats’. Of course, such an ascesis can be maintained for a while, but it is difficult, boring and less effective in the long run.