Thursday, April 30, 2009

Barbells vs Machines: Balancing a Weighty Issue - By Ken Mannie

Ken Mannie is the Head Strength/Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University.

Our answer is simple - we use both.

We believe in a comprehensive strength-training system that, while structured, allows for flexibility in the choice of equipment. Our emphasis is on safety, efficiency, productivity, and intensity, rather than the mode itself. Proper training technique and an aggressive approach always supersede the choice of equipment.

In terms of morphological enhancement (increase in muscular size), we know that the body responds favorably to progressive overload and that the source of the overload is not nearly as important as the proper application. We attempt to stimulate the target muscle complex with constant tension throughout the fullest range of motion (safely) possible. We do not believe that any one modality (barbell or machine) has a distinct advantage in stimulating lean tissue growth, enhancing strength and power, improving explosiveness, or augmenting sport-specific skill. The scientific literature has never established the superiority of any modality in these areas.

This is not to say that the two training modes are identical in function. Some very real differences exist between barbells and machines, and their pros and cons must be understood.


As there are no rods, cams, or a leverage mechanism to guide the load, free weights require a good sense of balance. It is possible that the more synergistic muscles have a stabilizing effect on the developmental process and the rate and level at which they act merit additional study. (Note: The synergistic muscles are assistant, or secondary, muscles that offer support to the primary muscles in the specific action.)

The diversity of the free weights is also an advantage in that the barbells and dumbbells offer multiple ways of exercising most body areas.

With dumbbells, for example, you can perform the bench press, incline press, and chest flies - all of which stimulate the chest and anterior shoulder regions.

For coaches with limited budgets, free weights usually offer a more affordable option. It is interesting to note that several "plate-loading" machines that use free-weight plates for the resistance are now available in the market place at competitive prices.


Machines offer the capability of intensely targeting specific muscle while adjusting resistance to the athlete's strength needs in that area.

Simply put, during the execution of the exercises, the athlete's musculature will be weaker at certain points and stronger at others. The variable resistance machines - those that accommodate to the biomechanical changes along the strength curve - address this problem. They do a much better job than free weights in meeting this need.

Another plus for machines is that they can isolate areas that need more emphasis. This synergetic effect previously mentioned in free-weight training isn't always desirable. By enhancing the stimulation to isolate areas, the machine can force those muscles to perform the brunt of the work.

Machines also afford a safer means of performing certain exercises. Example: A bent-over barbell row, albeit a good exercise for the upper-back musculature, can be stressful to the lumber-spine region. A seated machine row affords a safer and possibly more productive alternative.

In many instances, machines are a necessity. The neck, hamstrings, hip abductors (outer hip and thigh), hip adductors (inner thigh), and hip flexors (muscles that draw the thigh toward the abdominal area) require machine intervention or manual resistance for adequate stimulation.

Rehabilitation and "special needs" situations (e.g., an injury to a single limb or an injury that limits the range of motion) also highlight the need for strength-training machines. Whenever these individual situations surface and free weights are the only option, you can wind up with a problem.

Machines are extremely useful in rehabilitation because they make it easier and document the athlete's range of motion. This documentation is important in assessing pain-free movement and determining the healing progress.


We suggest the incorporation of both free weights and machines whenever possible. Both have unique advantages that are difficult to ignore.

We would be wary of individuals or organizations that advocate the sole or primary use of a single kind of equipment - machine, free weight, or whatever - as such advocates are usually salesmen, philosophically biased, or have some other kind of hidden agenda.

Remember, as we have mentioned in past articles and as Dan Riley continually espouses in his "Power Line," progressive overload is the vital ingredient in successful strength training.

As far as equipment goes, gentlemen, choose your weapon!

(Ken Mannie can be reached for further information at The Duffy Daugherty Football Building, Michigan State U., East Lansing, MI 48824 or by phoning 517-355-7514).
Does modern bodybuilding make you sick? You should write for Natural Strength! I always need good articles about drug-free weight training. It only has to be at least a page and nothing fancy. Just write it strong and truthful with passion! Send your articles directly to me:

Vintage Bodybuilding Literature

Vintage Bodybuilding Literature
Oldtime Strongman Books

This site does not provide medical advice. We assume no liability for the information provided in NaturalStrength articles. Please consult your physician before beginning any exercise or nutrition program. Copyright © 1999-2024 | All Rights Reserved.