Before you take a single decision in how you’re going to train for becoming strong, you need to understand the difference between free weights and fixed resistance machines. And you need to run a mile away from the latter.
You’ve likely never heard of Arthur Jones but you will be aware of the effect he’s had on the fitness industry. Walk into any gym in any town or city and you will expect to see an array of bulky, expensive mechanical contraptions that a human can insert themself into to perform a specific, restricted body movement. Arthur Jones invented the first of these many pieces of exercise equipment known as Nautilus machines.
There are two reasons why gyms and personal trainers promote these machines. Firstly, they’re really easy to use. Without any guidance or instruction any moderately intelligent person can sit themselves in one and work out how they’re meant to move. They can replace the small metal pin into the stacked block of weights to change the amount of resistance the machine gives. The machines are practically child proof. This saves the gym lots of time and money having to hire instructors who painstakingly teach their members more complex exercises.
Secondly, they’re extremely expensive and fill a lot of space. By having a dozen or so machines assembled in easy reach of each other, gym goers will look at the accumulative space and cost required to have all this equipment and realise that they could neither afford it, nor have a place to put it all. The conclusion people come to is a simple one: “I must have access to a gym.”
While I agree that gyms are generally great places to work out, Nautilus machines should be avoided almost exclusively.
Free weights vs Fixed Resistance Machine
Nautilus machines, or fixed resistance machines, restrict the movement of the body to one specific motion. Only a small set of muscles are being exercised which is not how the body works in the real world. If you add progressive training i.e. lifting heavier and heavier weights, on fixed resistance machines, you risk creating an imbalanced body easily susceptible to injury.
The basis of strength training is the barbell, with assistance from dumbbells for secondary or tertiary exercises. These move freely, hence the name free weights, which require the lifter to correct the position of the barbell or dumbbell at all times to maintain balance. In doing so, a myriad of small muscles are being stressed in addition to those driving the main lifting action. This makes the body more resilient and able to cope with all sorts of different physical challenges you might encounter in your daily life. Being extremely strong in a few localised areas with weak connecting neighbours is a recipe for performing a movement that some parts of your body can cope with but others cannot, resulting in injury.
I did say avoid almost exclusively. A fixed resistance machine at lower intensity can be good for rehabilitation where more complex movements could aggravate an existing injury. A quick web search will show elite athletes like Christiano Ronaldo using fixed resistance machines, but he’s definitely what I’d call an outlier. I’m also not counting machines that allow quasi-free exercises such as chin-ups, pull-ups, or dips, which are all good. Like I said, there are exceptions. The main point is that even if you’ve used these machines previously and you like them for whatever reason, forget about them. The basis of strength training is primarily the barbell. You’re going to have to learn how to use one.