Free weights, body weight, or machines?

Do you need a gym with the most up to date equipment?

Does lifting free weights like barbells and dumbbells create a different result than using resistance machines? Is it possible to build your ideal physique using nothing more than your body, or is there a limit to what that sort of training can achieve?

With an average monthly cost of sixty bucks, gyms around the world rake in over 22 billion dollars a year from their membership fees. That figure could nearly double if you include earnings from personal training packages and class fees. These days there is every manner of style and price tag to suit your needs and budget. You can spend as little as five dollars a month or over five hundred. Some gyms weights are old and rusty, while others continually update their equipment to the latest technological leap in the industry, almost guaranteed to get you to your results as fast and pain-free as possible.

It’s easy to get caught up in fancy equipment and gyms with well thought out mood lighting, but let’s not forget people have been achieving incredible levels of fitness through various forms of exercise since we humans started writing things down. I don’t know if Charles’s Atlas or would have done any better if they had access to Hammer Strength machines or a Truform Runner. The human body can only move in so many ways and will adapt accordingly. What matters is your intention behind the movements you perform.

Do you want to get stronger? Lift progressively heavier weight, and your body will adapt by getting stronger. Do you want to be faster? Run short distances regularly at near maximal output and your body will adjust, eventually becoming faster. Do you want to increase your endurance? Run long distances frequently at a submaximal output and your body will adapt by increasing aerobic capacity.

Your bicep doesn’t know the difference between a machine bicep curl, a dumbbell bicep curl, or a bodyweight bicep curl on a suspension trainer. The muscle will contract and relax the same to complete the movement, regardless of equipment used. Your pulmonary and respiratory systems can’t tell if you’re running outdoors or on a treadmill. The adaptive response of its ability to deliver blood and oxygen to the muscles will improve, regardless of equipment used.

Should you exercise with free weights or machines?

Free weights or machines?
Your bicep doesn’t know the difference between a machine bicep curl, a dumbbell bicep curl, or a bodyweight bicep curl on a suspension trainer. The muscle will contract and relax the same to complete the movement, regardless of equipment used.

There are other variables to consider.

You should make considerations other than the contraction and relaxation of any one muscle during an exercise. For instance, do you want to move a muscle in isolation without action from the surrounding synergists, or would you like to harmonize the movement of all muscles involved in a particular movement? If maximum strength is your primary focus, will bodyweight squats be enough of a stimulus on the muscles of the legs to create that strength? If you are rehabbing a shoulder injury and have been told by the surgeon to increase your posterior shoulder strength, would overhead barbell presses be the right move for you, or would externally rotating your shoulder against the resistance of an anchored band be more ideal?

The right tool for the job, as a carpenter would say.

That being said, whether you are training on advanced machines in a bespoke gym, using free weights at the local community center, or on the grass in the park, there is no fitness or physique goal you cannot achieve within reason. I have had clients of mine who are capable of squatting twice their bodyweight beg for mercy after asking them to perform a bodyweight split squat with strict form.

It’s pretty clear loading your muscles with barbells and machine exercises will give you some serious results if you follow a good program. But what about bodyweight exercises? If you’re trying to get strong, add some muscle, or tone your body, will bodyweight movements work?

Compare a drug-free bodybuilders physique to that of someone who’s practiced calisthenic movements extensively. It’s hard to argue that either’s physique is a direct result of the type of workouts they did or their access to certain equipment. Their body’s both encountered resistance training, and both their body’s adapted accordingly.

There are differences in how the two will focus their training, however. The bodybuilder may use isolation exercises, such as bicep curls, to focus more growth and size in the biceps and achieve a certain look on stage.

The person practicing calisthenics may opt not to overemphasize the size or strength of any one muscle, instead choosing to stimulate growth and unified functionality across all tissues of the body, maybe even going so far as to reduce muscle growth as a way of keeping the body weight to strength ratio high. In either case, whatever your goal you can achieve it regardless of the exercise equipment at your disposal.

The best form of exercise?

Gymnastics training and calisthenics exercises strengthen the whole body proportionally.

The one exception is maximal, full body strength training.

By this, I mean building strength to a level far surpassing what would be considered normal and, in my opinion, ideal.

This type of power and strength is the realm of a sport known as Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting. For your body to achieve a level of the uniform strength necessary to lift barbells in the same way even recreational powerlifters and Olympic lifters are able requires dedication to a highly particular methodology of training and equipment. No variation of air squat, push up, or bodyweight hamstring curl will prepare you to squat five hundred pounds, bench-press four hundred pounds, or deadlift six hundred pounds. Similarly, there is no machine that I know of capable of preparing you for those exercises.


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What are the limiting factors?

So, if the equipment isn’t the limiting factor, what are some of the questions you should ask yourself when deciding where and how to train? The biggest factor will be how easy is it for you to adopt the practice into your lifestyle.

The three keys for whether something will be a sustainable change in your life are the financial cost, how easy it is for you to fit it into your already established daily routine, and whether you like both the type of exercise and the atmosphere of the environment.

Most people live within a short walk or drive from a big brand gym, so taking this option seem the obvious choice. The gym industry is highly competitive and, as such, there is a membership price that will fit your budget out there somewhere.

If general fitness is your primary concern, and you aren’t training for a particular event or sport, then a big brand gym offers the lowest barrier to entry as they universally purchase cardio equipment and resistance machines that require little setup and understanding of how to properly operate.

However, if you are new to a workout routine or have body acceptance issues, big brand gyms can be incredibly intimidating at first and frequently lead new gym goers to feel out of place and not wanting to return. There is a statistic out there that less than half of a gym’s membership base shows up to work out on a regular basis.

In fact, the average big brand gym needs to sell ten times the amount of memberships their space could serve just to stay profitable. In other words, they are banking on most of their members not even showing up. What this means for those who find themselves in the gym for the first time is they are surrounded by the consistent die hards who’ve attained impressive physiques. This can create an atmosphere that may seem uninviting for someone who likely already has acceptance issues.

Small group training

Small group training is something I recommend if if it’s within your budget as it not only makes access to a professional more affordable, but the support you get from your peers can help you achieve your results more quickly.

Private Studio and Small Group Training

Another option is a private training studio exclusively offering one on one or small group training. Although a much more expensive option, the atmosphere is almost guaranteed to be more welcoming than your typical, big brand gym. The clients in these studios are just regular people trying to improve or maintain their fitness to a reasonable level. You won’t find any intimidating gorillas or Instagram models here.

The downside, of course, is the price. Sessions can run anywhere from 30 dollars to over a hundred dollars and will, of course, depend on the prestige of the facility and whether you are training one on one with a trainer or in a small group.

I recommend trying to train in a small group if you can as this not only makes it more affordable, but the support you get from your peers can help you achieve your results more quickly.

Outdoor Bootcamps

If you live in a part of the world where you can count on decent weather most of the year, then exercising outdoors could be a viable option for you. Besides, if you work out three times a week that adds up to 156 hours a year. Do you really want to spend that much time inside if you don’t have to?

Most big cities have personal trainers who run outdoor boot camps at local parks and beaches. There’s no reason you can’t achieve your ideal level of fitness by regularly attending a class like this. Many personal trainers, including myself, give their clients the option of training outdoors if it’s a beautiful day.

If you have the discipline and access to a well thought out program, you could also take up a bodyweight routine at your local park by yourself or with a friend or two. Public parks usually have some form of equipment you can do pull-ups on or hang a suspension trainer from. You can have a hell of a workout just by moving your body in various ways all within a small area of flat ground or by sprinting up a grassy hill a few times.

Summary: What’s the answer?

There is no one right way to train. There is only a right way to train for you, your unique goals, and limitations or valid concerns. The most important thing is to find a place you like going to and will offer you the ability to create the results you’re after.

If you don’t care about building massive amounts of muscle then maybe joining a running group is more up your alley.

If you want to increase your body awareness and sense of functional strength, then maybe taking up power flow yoga or a calisthenic movement practice is more for you.

If you are recovering from injury or would like a more private, guided setting, then a small personal training studio is likely a good fit.

You may even be that person who dreams of lifting seven hundred pounds up from the floor. In that case, there are powerlifting gyms that offer an incredibly supportive and encouraging atmosphere to achieve your unique goals.

Don’t worry about how you exercise. Just find the most enjoyable and natural way for you to exercise. After all, the whole reason you take up exercise is to add value and happiness to your life.

As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or  you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share.

If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!

And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!

Other articles you may like:

Why do we exercise?

How to create SPECIFIC goals

What makes a good exercise program?

Free weights, body weight, or machines. Which is best? 

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About the author

I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her. 

Taylor Patterson

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