McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Bill Skinner of Park City, Utah, gets into position for a front squat using free weights.
Where do you work out in your gym? Is it the aerobics area, where you run or spin, perhaps while watching TV or reading a book? Or do you use machines, sitting down to exercise? Forget it! Instead, get your best workout by hitting the free weight room.
Many gym members, especially women, avoid a conditioning routine centered on free weights. They may be turned off by the noise — grunting, shouting, the clanging of iron thrown to the floor after a set. Some are embarrassed because they can’t use the heavy poundage others seem to lift easily. Or perhaps they’re secretly worries that people will look at them.
Those are poor excuses for avoiding free weights. Your workout is about YOU. It’s one place where personal ego is not only okay, but required for success.
But why should you use free weights when machines are so convenient? Answer: because regardless of your sport or activity, free weights will make you better.
Because free weights use more muscles than a machine. Using a leg press machine for squats, you’re sitting or laying back, pushing with your legs. Your core and back muscles don’t do as much work; they’re supported by the seat. The machine stabilizes the weight for you.
If you do a squat with a weighted barbell, there’s nothing to steady it but you. The muscles of your back, glutes and abs have to support that weight and stabilize it; more muscles come into play, and the physical stress on them increases. You get better conditioning. A standing squat with a barbell uses the lats and traps. A leg press machine doesn’t.
Another detriment to machines is their fixed range of motion. If you work muscles in a limited range of motion, that’s where those muscles will develop most of their strength. You’ll be weaker outside that range of motion.
Every natural weight movement calls on “helper” muscles —small but important muscles that help with the exercise. But the motion of a machine is fixed, and the helper muscles aren’t required. That’s why a free weight athlete will always beat a machine-trained athlete. The one using free weights will always be stronger overall. The athlete using machines won’t have that overall power, because their smaller muscles never got the right kind of training.
Then there is the balance factor. It’s fairly hard to fall off a stationary spin bike or narrow treadmill. But outdoors, where the ground surface varies and the motion is not just straight ahead, you’ll have to dodge and weave to keep moving to a better position. In a game played on a court or field, you must bend forcefully and reach out in all directions for the ball. All these moves require strong core muscles that keep you balanced and upright.
Balance, like every other athletic skill, only improves from repeated physical stress. With free weights, you have to balance and stabilize the weight without assistance; so your core — the center of your balance — gets worked. A machine does most, if not all, of that work for you, so you get very little, if any, balance training.
If you’ve rarely or never used free weights for conditioning, the first thing to learn is the balance and stabilization needed to keep a barbell in the proper position on your back for squats and lunges, or hold it on an even plane when doing bench presses. You’ll learn this balance faster if you start with much lighter weights than you’re accustomed to using with a machine.
Free weights are in fact harder to use than machines, precisely because you have to stabilize and move the weight all by yourself. Which is perhaps the best reason of all head to the weight room when you hit the gym.