Bodyweight Exercise vs. Free Weights vs. Machines
By Tamir Katz of TBK Fitness
In this article, I am going to be discussing the merits and drawbacks of
exercising with free weights, including barbells, dumbbells, sandbags, or other
weighted objects, bodyweight exercises, which include calisthenics and
gymnastics, and machines, which include both weight machines and aerobic
machines such as treadmills and step machines. Let's start off with what you
hope to achieve from your workouts, and we'll correlate your goals with what
kind of workouts you should be doing.
Unfortunately, the trend nowadays at most gyms is towards "cosmetic" workouts,
where a trainee will simply try to acquire blown up biceps and a large chest
without caring about the development of the legs, back, neck, as well as the
functionality of his body. By functionality, I mean the ability to use the body
for purposes other than the means by which it acquired the strength or stamina.
For example, our trainee back there who pumps up his arms on machines, probably
cannot do a heck of a lot more with his body now than before he started working
out, other than push more weights on the arm machine. Thus his workouts are not
functional. On the other hand, a trainee who lifts and carries heavy sandbags
has functional strength which he can use when lifting, carrying, or moving other
heavy things such as furniture, heavy luggage, boxes, etc.
This is the primary reason machines are pretty useless. They have no crossover
benefit to real life situations. No balance is required when pushing a handle on
a machine, and so all of the accessory muscles, tendons, and ligaments that come
into play in real life situations are not being worked. Furthermore, machines
tend to isolate muscle groups. A gym will typically have a circuit of machines
set up where one works the chest, one the quadriceps, one the shoulders, one the
triceps, and so on and so forth. However, in virtually no real life situations
do muscles work in isolation. Whether one is throwing a ball, punching someone,
kicking, pushing, jumping, or running, many muscles are working together.
Machine based workouts also emphasize going slowly "to take all of the momentum
out of the lift." Once again, in virtually no real life situations do we move
slowly. Did Muhammad Ali throw slow punches? Did Nolan Ryan throw the fastball
as slow as he could? Did Michael Jordan slowly make his way to the basket to
dunk? Of course not. Speed is essential in most activities. You don't want to be
teaching your muscles to work slowly.
The aerobic based machines are also usually harmful. Step machines, ski
machines, and exercise bicycles all involve repeating the same motion along the
same track thousands of times, which can lead to overuse injuries involving the
knees, hips, feet, and back. It is preferential to sprint outside on hills or
grass, where every step is slightly different, and by virtue of the intensity of
the workout, one cannot continue it for long periods of time due to fatigue.
So, are there any benefits to using machines? Yes - they do have limited uses.
For example, when rehabilitating an injury where you cannot support a barbell,
dumbbells, or your own bodyweight, a machine might be used. Similarly, an
injured leg might be rehabilitated on an exercise bicycle. The only non-injury
related use for machines I can think of is running sprints on a treadmill.
Again, sprinting outside is better, since on a machine your acceleration into
the sprint is limited by how fast the machine adjusts the speed, but for those
that absolutely cannot get outside, the treadmill is an acceptable alternative.
Let's move on to the bodyweight vs. free weights debate. Bodyweight exercises
are superior for wrestling and other grappling and martial arts, gymnastics, and
for those who want to join the armed forces. Weight training is superior for
brute strength, football, lifting competitions, and many of the sports. However,
when training for other sports, free weights should be combined with sprints,
some bodyweight exercises, as well as sport specific drills.
Why are bodyweight exercises superior for grappling, combat, and gymnastics? For
several reasons. First of all, in each of those activities one needs the ability
to use a muscle group over and over again at high levels - that is, muscular
endurance, which is developed very well by bodyweight exercises like squats,
push-ups, sit-ups, etc. Second, each of those events requires body awareness.
I define body awareness literally as being aware of every part of your body at
any given point in time in any given position. The problem with weight lifting
exercises, even the good ones like snatches, cleans, jerks, or bent pressing, is
that you use "weight awareness" - that is, you have to be aware of where the
weight is at all times more than where your body is. As long as the weight is
lifted and caught in the correct position(s), the body will naturally follow
suit (or else the lift fails).
However, bodyweight exercises take the weights out of the equation. To
successfully do such challenging exercises as handstand push-ups, one-legged
squats, headstands, and bridges, you have to be focusing on every part of your
body. That is why they are so good for wrestling, and other combat sports where
your body is in many different positions during a match, and to be able to
successfully recover and counter attack, you must have full awareness of where
each part of your body is at all times. Similarly, in gymnastics, where you flip
and end up in many different positions, body awareness is crucial.
Not all bodyweight exercises develop body awareness equally. Some of the ones I
mentioned above such as handstand push-ups and bridging do a very good job, but
regular push-ups on the other hand develop it to a lesser extent. The more a
bodyweight exercise requires agility and balance, the more body awareness it
Bodyweight exercises are also good for people always on the road, those without
money to purchase weights, and those with very little time, as a set of push-ups
or squats can be squeezed in at odd moments during the day.
So what are weights good for? Many things! Nothing packs muscle on a skinny
frame like heavy, intense lifting. Nothing is better for increasing brute
strength and power - the kind used to lift a heavy box, open a jar that's stuck,
tackle a 210 pound running back running at the speed of light, smash a homerun
over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, or throw the discus record distances.
However, you should choose useful exercises that work many muscles at the same
time, exercises such as cleans, snatches, jerks, presses, squats, and deadlifts,
using barbells, dumbbells, or sandbags.
Let's sum it all up. Use machines very sparingly. They have poor crossover to
real life activities. Use a predominantly bodyweight exercise regimen when
training for such activities as wrestling and combat sports in general,
gymnastics, diving, acrobatics, and the military, where you have to use muscles
again and again and need highly developed body awareness, or simply if you're
always on the road or have very little time. Use a predominantly free weight
exercise regimen for most other sports and activities, but include some
bodyweight exercises, and no matter what kind of activity you're engaged in,
sprinting in all its forms will enhance your athleticism and fitness.
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