A Tale of Two Resistances

In Writings by Kasey Olson




Machines vs. Free weights “A tale of two resistances”

Just like the age old question of whether to choose Pepsi or Coca-Cola, the decision to use machines or free weights has been an age old question inhabiting every fitness center in the civilized world.  And for a long time, there have been warring factions for each and a lot of misinformation regarding the chief technologies involved with resistance exercise.  In over a decade of personal training work here in Kitsap, there have been numerous times when I’ve been asked which one I choose.  The answer I give them is pretty straightforward:  “Both…and it depends.”

Each has their own positives and drawbacks, so I don’t find one to be beneficial over the other, but like other tools have their place in terms of when to use them, how to use them and most importantly WHO to use them for.  No two clients are completely identical.  Endurance, balance, flexibility and overall strength level will vary from person to person.  In certain cases, I’ll have clients use one piece and not another but a lot of the selection process is geared around initial assessment and what a person’s initial capabilities are.

Part I:  Heavy Iron

Benefits include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Increased balance and proprioception
  • Usage of smaller stabilizer muscles due to the body’s forced control of the movement arc
  • Better suited and more functional ability to adapt to sport-like movements (i.e. movement simulation)
  • Greater overall strength (including neurological adaption)
  • Ability to control weight in free space and incorporate speed adaption in advanced compound (multi-joint movements)

Drawbacks include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Safety risks involved in heavier resistances during setup, execution and re-racking portions of exercises
  • Necessity of a spotter(s) for certain movements and resistances
  • Need to load and change weights at times can be a tedious ordeal
  • Mechanical nature of movements makes isolated overload of individual muscle groups more difficult
  • Individuals with limited mobility, poor coordination, low strength levels cannot perform movements safely/effectively


Part II:  Machine Shop

Benefits include (but aren’t limited to):

  • More efficient isolation of muscle groups from controlled movement path (especially beneficial for uncoordinated trainees)
  • Space utilization can house more trainees safely in a confined space
  • Changeover between sets, exercises, trainees is much faster
  • Stability cues for more advanced movements can be coached on beginners to prepare them for graduation to free weights

Drawbacks include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Machines are built for average user height:  Short or tall people may find it difficult to obtain proper setup & comfort
  • Proprioceptive and overall balance functioning are diminished
  • Build quality and design are not equal, and resistance level and efficiency can vary widely depending on manufacturing…even for the same exercise type
  • Speed training is not ideal as most machines are not equipped/designed to handle higher speed movements
  • Strength curve accommodation may vary depending on the cam design, thus affecting the resistance efficiency
  • Improper setup can lead to gross ineffectiveness or injury as the machine is built stronger than human connective tissue

So, a pretty balanced listing and not the smoking gun you’d expect by talking to the local meathead at your gym wearing his “free weights or die” tank top.  And a lot of times, it comes down to individualization.  I’ve had clients who are too immobile or lack poor balance and stabilizer strength to work through patented free weight staples.  Or prior injuries permanently rule them out of certain movements.  That’s where progression comes in.  In many cases, testing and assessment (along with some proverbial training wheels) can graduate someone to free weight movements when their initial work on them would have an unsafe and ineffective glass ceiling installed.  

If they were to just barrel ahead the most they could hope for is to not get hurt, let alone find bankable progress.  In the end, heavy iron is the premier choice for athletic and elite performance.  But the highest rate of return can also yield the highest risk if not programmed properly.  Free weights are always the weapon of choice for athletes and serious trainees.  You will not find a sport training center that isn’t comprised primarily of racks, barbells, dumbbells and lifting platforms.  Then again, not everyone is trying to make the football team.  Not exactly a winning argument either way in terms of what to use.  Rather, I look at the various technologies in fitness as differing weapons or tools to use.  Different arrows to have in the quiver.  Why?  Adaptability and variety.  The key is knowing when and where to fire those arrows.