Dear Tara Marie,
Should I use free weights and cables or machines at the gym? I always end up using the machines because I don’t know what to do with free weights. I get really intimidated and don’t even try!
From a professional standpoint, I prefer free weights and cables. Machines lock you into a movement pattern that is not necessarily right for your body. When you use a machine, you just grab the handles and press or pull or whatever the movement may be, but it does not allow you to adjust the movement pattern to your specific needs. For example, perhaps one of your shoulders needs a slightly different angle to function safely and effectively. A machine does not allow for this variation in your movement pattern.
The other thing that makes me err away from machines is that they require less on the part of the participant. When you use a machine, your body does not have to stabilize itself as you would if you were using cables and free weights. This stabilization comes from using muscles in your torso, arms, legs, etc., that keep your body properly positioned while you are working other muscles as primary movers. All these muscles working concomitantly require more effort and you get more bang for your buck, so to speak. Machines require only that you sit on a gadget, grab the handles, and go!
The caveat is that in order to use free weights and cables safely, one must have an understanding of how to properly use them or they become “accidents waiting to happen.” Because free weights and cables allow you to work through a greater range of motion, the risk of injury increases. For example, you could very easily use too great a range of motion at any given joint and cause injury if not after a single workout, then certainly over time. Negative stress on your body will translate into all sorts of chronic overuse and misuse injuries that can take a long time to heal.
If you are not familiar with how to properly use free weights and cables, consider hiring a personal trainer (even if only for a few sessions), so you can learn about safe and effective biomechanics. If hiring a trainer is financially not an option, go to conditioning classes at your gym. A lot of the work that you will do in a conditioning class using body bars and dumbbells can be done in the weight room. Pay attention to using impeccable form as taught by your instructor and you can get a better idea of how to properly stabilize your body and work through a safe range of motion.
Remember, there is nothing better than resistance training to create a strong and functional body, but your development is entirely determined by your training technique, so always be mindful of the details!
~ Tara Marie