Why Free Weights Are Better Than Machines

Recently I mentioned to a friend of mine how one day I would love to have a squat rack in my house. His reply: “That would take up so much space. Why don’t you just put a Boflex in a room or something?” I would imaging the feeling I have towards putting a Boflex in my house is much like what a drummer feels when a friend suggests they just play on a drum machine instead of a full kit. Yeah, its compact, you technically can play it and its arguably better than nothing. However, the reason so few true drummers can live with this over a real studio drum kit can be summed up on a bumper sticker,“ drum machines have no soul.” Well, neither do exercise machines in my opinion, but since its not as catchy, I’ll just go with the drummer analogy.

back Squat

Machines are built with the “average” person in mind. Although they offer some interesting options for movement diversity, if used exclusively your development as an athlete will be stunted because a “one size fits all” approach will never deliver maximum results.

In addition, you’ll really never know your true strength levels. The blocks of weight you stick a pin into do not accurately reflect that of its free weight counter part. To me, there’s just something artificial about exercise machines.

Greater Hormonal Response?

The beauty of free weights is the fact that you, the athlete, have to wield them into place and then perform the necessary action. Theres something raw and primal about this. Stepping into a cold steel squat rack and mounting the barbell atop your shoulders elicited a fight or flight instinct that exercise machines with their padded seats and safely handles simply do not.

An April 2014 study conducted by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested this theory by taking 10 healthy men with experience in weight training and put them through a free weight workout and a machine workout to see which elicited a greater hormonal response.

For the machine workout they chose the leg press and had each male perform 6 sets of 10 reps at 80% of their one rep max. A few days later they had the same group of men perform 6 sets of 10 reps at 80% of their one rep max with full depth barbell back squats (a tough workout mind you).

During the time of both workouts the researchers placed a catheter in their arm to sample hormonal levels in the blood as it was happening. The results: 25% more testosterone present when performing squats over leg press. Not surprising really to anyone who’s ever put themselves through a squats workout like this. More surprising was the increase in growth hormone, up 200% on average during the squat workout over the leg press. When checked 30 minutes later the men still had 100% more growth hormone then they did from the leg press workout.

These are remarkable findings that prove the power and efficiency of free weight compound lifts. This doesn’t necessarily mean the leg press is “bad”, but since most of us only have a 60 minute window 3-5 times per week to train, effectiveness is of the utmost importance.

As creatures of comfort it is in our nature to search out for the path of least resistance. However, when physical prowess is our objective comfort will only make cowards of us. At least in the world of exercise and fitness we need to get our feathers ruffled from time to time.

The body is an amazingly perceptive machine. Though it may seem inconsequential the safety locks, padded grips and smooth gliding pulleys put the mind at ease and the body in a state of comfort and control which translates to an inhibited hormonal response.

As this study proves, maximum physical adaptation comes to those willing to abandon the comforts of exercise machines and step into a squat rack prepared for a un-pleasurable experience.