Machines vs. Free Weights

by Matt Attanasio BS, CPT, PES

Which workout works for the athlete?

There are numerous factors to consider when working with young athletes in junior and senior high school, including their level of knowledge, who is supervising them, where they learned how to lift weights, who taught them, i.e. their parents, PE teachers, coaches or some muscle bound guy at the gym who looks good.  However, the first thing to consider is the reason they are doing that exercise.

Initially, doing any type of workout for any reason is usually better than not training.  But, when it comes to training for sports/athletics, the less machine-based training a young athlete or mature athlete does, the better.  The elite athlete notwithstanding, machine-based workouts refer to the use of traditional machines that take 30 seconds or so to just line up your body properly.    

Most young weight lifters today are receiving information on what to do and how to do it from their coach, PE Teacher or parent.  These “authority” figures grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and did what is called “bodybuilding” or “body part” training.  Whether
it was Nauitlus or Cybex machines, leg press, leg extension or curls, it was all “bodybuilding” or “body part” training.  When the athlete is “in” or ‘on” these machines, they are typically in positions that have been labeled “safer” but, unfortunately don’t pertain to sports.  There is no need to stabilize or support your own body weight because the machine does it for you.  Today, Science and Technology has changed this for the better by introducing “Functional Training Equipment” that best suits human movement.

“Safer” exercise means that one needs to be instructed less, and potentially has less chance of error during the execution of a particular exercise.  Usually, all one has to do is push the weight or pull it.  When athletes have quality instruction, most of them who “strength train” without machines (there are a few exceptions), will gain an advantage that closely relate to sports in general.  On a more important note, the athlete will decrease their chance of injury, because most free weight or bodyweight training protocols are more specific to sports and their physical demands.

Sports activities consist of dynamic (moving), unstable, unpredictable and highly coordinated movement patterns executed on a field, court or ice rink.  Usually there are multiple athletes or objects that may be obstructing one’s pathway or the athlete may have to throw, catch, swing some apparatus (i.e. ball/puck/bat etc.).  Some sports are inherently “contact” oriented or “violent,” such as football and hockey.   If young athletes are allowed or forced to train “safely” on machine-based programs, we could be setting them up for injury once they participate in contact, and sometimes, violent sports or activities.  This is something to think about, even for the potential non-contact injuries that may occur during sports.

Young athletes should not be trained in an unsafe manner because they are involved in unsafe sports.  However, training on machines offers an unrealistic environment since they are safe, very stable and highly predictable.  This is the exact opposite of
what sports entails or exhibits.  It is also the exact opposite of what today’s “performance training” athletes need.  The key is to
strike a balance between safe exercise and creating an environment that is realistic to that of sports activities.

When an athlete, male or female, can receive proper supervision for body weight, free weight or functional training, coaches and parents are advised to be extremely supportive and proactive.  This type of “performance training,” especially in today’s ever–growing field of sports-science training, allows the athlete’s brain and nervous system to learn and adapt to the potentially unstable and unpredictable forces they may come upon while playing sports.  When an athlete teaches their your brain and musculoskeletal system to be able to reduce force, stabilize force and then, ultimately produce force, in any environment or body position under stress, they will be more prepared in today’s sports world. 

In examining different “types” of training, there is an exception to any rule.  Looking at the “bodybuilding” mentality, typically the goal is to isolate muscles and make them grow, usually as big as possible.  There is nothing wrong with this, if that is the goal.  Many experts in the field feel that doing some isolated training is appropriate at some point.  However, sports inherently are performed by what is called integrated movements.  This means that “the sum of human movement is typically greater than its parts.”   Sport involves all muscles and metabolic systems in the body at the same time, in an integrated and interrelated manner.  When playing sports, there is a mobility and stability component in human movement. When some body parts are “mobile” or moving, other parts are “stable” or not moving which allows balance.  When this balance is disturbed because of a lack of propioception (body awareness in space), it may cause an eventual breakdown or injury.  If the goal of an athlete, coach or parent is to reduce injury and improve athletic performance, the appropriate instruction and protocol should be considered.  Free weights, body weight, functional training or a combination, are better choices over machines.  

At Infinity Fitness and Sports Institute, we urge all young athletes, parents and coaches who are considering strength training and conditioning, to find quality supervision.  We are affiliated and certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the National Strength & Conditioning Association, two of the top certifying bodies in the Sports Performance industry.  So when you consider training for life and or sports, train with the appropriate stimulus or training tools.


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