Machines VS Free Weights – the Hierarchy of Strength Training Tools

posted in: Gear, Strength Training, Uncategorized | 6

“I’m all for machines…once they come up with one that can really surpass free weights. They haven’t. They probably never will. You’d be better off trying to lift the damn machine and carry it around the gym…God knows you’d get a better workout from it.”
– Vince Gironda, 1949

I wish our culture took this message to heart when it was spoken 60 years ago. We would have saved ourselves from so much trouble.

Weight machines are extremely efficient contraptions, meaning YOU don’t have to be efficient to use them effectively. All of those cables, pulleys, and points of leverage make it fairly easy to elevate the weight stacks – with or without magnetic add-ons. We all know that most people can lift more weight on a machine exercise than during a free weight exercise, but why is that? It’s because with a machine, you are only pushing against weights, NOT controlling them. The pads, the handles, the seat adjustments all contribute to requiring less efficiency from your body – because the machine handles some of the workload for you. Essentially, training on a weight machine means that you’re training your body to become less efficient.

By using a machine, you are dumbing down your nervous system. Can you tell that I don’t like machines? I do think they serve a purpose, and there is definitely value in training on a machine, but only in special circumstances like being a complete beginner to strength training or when in a rehabilitation program with a qualified physical therapist. If you’re not in one of those two situations, steer clear!

Free weights are an excellent tool for strength training purposes, and they rest much higher on the hierarchy of strength training tools than machines do. But, then again, not all tools were created equal.

From an efficiency standpoint, barbells are a much more efficient tool than dumbbells. You can lift more weight in a barbell exercise than during an identical dumbbell exercise because the barbell is a more efficient training tool. If we’re trying to make the body more efficient (and thus more effective long-term), then dumbbells are a better alternative than barbells because dumbbells require much more CONTROL over the weight. Dumbbells are not as “fixed,” they are more free to deviate from their expected path.

If we go a step further, kettlebells are an even less efficient training tool than the dumbbell because their weight is displaced away from the handle. Since you aren’t supporting the load from the middle (as with the dumbbell), but from the side – this tool requires more efficiency from the lifter to control it. Another major benefit of the kettlebell is that it can be swung and lifted. Swinging weight creates force by traction and torque. The faster the weight is swung, the more force is required to control it. Again, the kettlebell is a LESS efficient tool.

Wouldn’t it also be true that if the kettlebell is a less efficient tool, requiring more efficiency from the lifter, that another tool with an even greater leverage disadvantage would be an even better option?

It’s true, and that is exactly why the clubbell was invented – not only because club swinging is the oldest form of strength training, but because swinging a club requires much more control than lifting a dumbbell or swinging a kettlebell. The clubbell is the LEAST efficient tool, requiring the MOST amount of control to use it effectively.

This control transfers to what I call, REAL WORLD STRENGTH, strength that is applicable to our everyday lives. It’s true that you can develop real world strength with any of the above tools (maybe not with machines because we don’t execute most daily tasks sitting down, laying down, or wearing a seatbelt – duh!). Although, I think the clubbell is the highest on the hierarchy of free weight strength training tools, especially when it comes to efficiency.

Strength is specific and strength is a skill. Having high numbers in the bench press, deadlift, and squat proves that you are strong in those activities, but not strong in other activities. A high squat number will not transfer to better performance on the field or in the ring – we’ve been deceived.

I’ve been training with the clubbell for the past three years, and I can attest that it is one of the best tools for building strength that is applicable to athletic and everyday activities. The interesting thing is that I haven’t touched a barbell in years, and yet the other day when out-of-the-blue testing my 1RM in an exercise, I had only lost 10% of my former max in that particular lift. Yet, I feel so much stronger because I am stronger.

If you want strength that is not only functional, but applicable to real life needs, then I strongly encourage you to look into the clubbell as a viable training tool that will last you the rest of your life.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional and Clubbell Athlete

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6 Responses

  1. John,

    Vince was spot on. Machines are a good tool for two specific tasks:

    1. Circuit training
    2. Advanced training for bodbuilders

    Yavor

  2. Hi Yavor,

    Thanks for stopping by. I definitely agree that machines can and should be used by competitive bodybuilders. There’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. I think some confusion arises when young men especially want to build muscle, they think that they need a bodybuilding program – and so they start using machines, which is not smart and unnecessary.

    I teach a health-first fitness philosophy, and bodybuilding training, while perfect for physique-based goals is not suited for improving and fortifying health. A beautiful physique actually comes as a byproduct of abundant health, not the other way around.

    I also think machines are great for circuit training, which is what they were designed for, although with one word of caution. Unless you are a complete beginner to weight training or exercise, I would stay away from machines entirely. Machines do not train the body in as natural a way as free weights, and with repetitive use will start a regress in progress, plateau, and eventually cause injury.

    I covered some of this in this Q+A about the leg press exercise:
    http://johnsifferman.com/blog/?p=892

    Best regards,

    John

  3. Yeah John, I agree completely with all your points. I’m sure magazine influenced workouts have cost us both too much frustration and lost time.

    Just wanted to add that they are not COMPLETELY useless but more like 95% percent useless LOL.

    Yavor

  4. Oh good, the feeling is mutual then :)

  5. Good solid information – that’s why I always enjoy reading your blog. I just put this text on the link- list of my website. It fits perfect as an addition to another text I refer to about mainstream fitness industry: All show and no go. Machines should stay where they belong: rehabilitation.

    Cheers
    Andrea

  6. Thanks Andrea, what a kind complement!

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