Written by: Elsie Ross, CPT at Prescription Fitness (Cleveland, Ohio)

If you are only focusing on resistance machines for your strength training, it is time you “free” yourself from the limitations that resistance machines provide and switch to free weights instead.   Not only are they more convenient and much more affordable if you work out at home, but free weights provide many other benefits that resistance machines simply cannot compete with.  All you need to get a good workout are the weights and a few square feet.  You can perform so many different exercises and variations of those exercises to strengthen every muscle in your body.  Believe me when I tell you…if you incorporate free weights into your routine, you can be confident that you will become stronger, burn lots of calories, improve your balance, and reduce your risk of injury.

One if the main advantages to using free weights over machines is that free weights allow your body to move throughout all three planes of motion.  Since free weights, unlike machines, are not fixed on a certain path, you don’t just have to push or pull in one direction.   When your body has to work to support the weight AND control the movement, your larger muscles, stabilizer muscles, and core all work harder.  This means you are strengthening way more than one muscle.

In addition to working more than one muscle at once, free weights make them work together which in time improves balance and coordination.  A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that individuals who used free weights improved their balance almost twice as much as those who performed similar exercises on resistance-training machines.

It is important to know that the more muscles you work in any given exercise, the more calories you’re going to burn with every rep.  Free weights are great because they allow you to perform compound movements that work your entire body at once.  One example of a compound move is the squat to overhead press: by working your legs, core, arms, and shoulders, this exercise greatly increases your calorie burn.  There is no resistance machine that will allow you to perform this move.

Free weights can help you prevent injury because they allow you to work on muscle imbalances whereas strength machines do not.  By loading each side of your body separately, free weights reduce differences between your right and left side.  Also, by constantly challenging your balance, free weights force you to work and strengthen your small stabilizing muscles, which play a big role in supporting your body and keeping your joints in their proper place.

Below are a few things to keep in mind when transitioning from machines to free weights:

  • Get help from a qualified trainer – it is important that you learn proper technique for each exercise done with free weights
  • Always exercise all sides of the body—right, left, front, and back
  • Use full range of motion
  • Lift in a slow and controlled manner. It is important NOT to use momentum
  • When lifting very heavy weights, always use a spotter
  • Keep your head up, and maintain a straight spine