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Strength Training with Free Weights - How to Use Free Weights

Machines or free weights for sports training


Updated June 10, 2014

More and more top coaches and athletes are shying away from machine-based weight workouts and finding alternative training methods. Weight machines are expensive, require a gym membership and are often ineffective training tools because they focus on isolation exercises, relying exclusively on machines for strength training may actually limit sports performance and increase injury risk.

Personal trainers and coaches design training programs that include exercises that simulate both sports-specific and real-life activities that uses a variety of movements through a wide range of motion. This type of training is often called "functional fitness." The foundation of these functional fitness programs are a variety of compound exercises (multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time) that incorporate free weights and body weight exercises.

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Another problem with weight machines is that they fail to adhere to the principle of specificity of training. You must train for the sport you play, and the best training activities mimic your sports movements. If you train on machines, you get good at lifting or pushing those weights on the machine. Does that translate to a better tennis serve or better hill climbing on a bike? Not necessarily.

Even if you aren't an athlete and simply want to feel better doing daily chores machines will only get you so far. The vast majority of daily tasks we do don't comply with the fixed movements of machines. Most of our daily tasks involve 'free weights'. Groceries, books, furniture, lawn tools and children are not fixed weights that only move in a certain direction after you get set up and 'strapped in' to your machine. You lift these items without the benefit of guides, rails or levers.

Free weights such as dumbbells and medicine balls are better training for sports and for life. We can create much more specificity of training by using free weight than with machines. Machines build muscles that you use mainly in the gym.

Another benefit of training with free weights is that you will develop better balance. Machines require no balance at all - you sit down, strap yourself in and push. Balance training is an essential part of all sports and is extremely important for graceful aging.

Also See: Top 10 Balance and Proprioception Training Products

Machines do have a place in rehab and training, when muscle isolation, or the ability to control movement speed, direction and intensity is desired. Machines are also useful for novice exercisers who may need a very structured program of movement to build some very basic strength. Machines can also have a role in 'bulking' up the body with muscle for unspecified strength. Obviously, body builders will want as much muscle as possible, and aren't as concerned with how that muscle performs precise, athletes movements. But functional training should be the core of a fitness program for anyone who wants to develop strength, skill, agility and balance for sports (and life) outside the gym


Kraemer WJ, et al. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Feb;34(2):364-80.

Fleck, S.J., and W.J. Kraemer. Designing resistance training programs. (2004).

Kraemer, W.J. Strength Training Basics: Designing workouts to meet patients' goals. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 2003, 31(8), n.p.

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