There is an argument that always comes up when people discuss about the differences between exercising with free weights (weights that are free to move in any direction) and working with machines.
Working out with Free Weights vs Machines
Proponents of free weights say that free weights are better than machine resistance as the free weights are more “specific” (that is, able to target a specific muscle or part of a muscle, or a specific movement pattern). Advocates for machines argue that you can lift heavier weights, so strength and endurance improvements are maximized.
Personally, I wonder why they bother to argue. Arguments about equipment lead nowhere unless there is an agreement to the specific fitness goal. For example, the exercise I’m going to discuss today is the squat. However, the exercise will use a barbell rather than a machine.
Using a barbell makes this a “grosser” exercise. It uses a greater amount of muscle mass and a greater number of muscles to perform the exercise. Using a machine is a “finer” exercise that targets more specific muscle groups. The extra muscle involvement with a squat comes from the length of the barbell amplifying tiny movements, activating the postural muscles which help maintain your balance.
The free-weights squat is a popular foundation exercise, as it can target a large number of muscles and muscle groups in one exercise. This distributes the stress over large parts of the body. However, all the postural adjustments do put a lot of strain on the joints, and connective tissues of the body, which can lead to acute (sudden) or chronic (develop slowly) injuries.
This is a safe exercise as long as you religiously follow the guidelines. Keep in mind that working out with free weights is a high strain activity, and that the potential for injury increases as intensity increases. Pay attention to the following points:
Feet flat on floor, slightly wider than shoulder width, turned out at a comfortable angle.
This is the angle of the back relative to the pelvis. If you bend too far forward you will create shear forces, which act to try and dislocate your spine. Get your spotter to let you know if the angle between your thighs and back is less than 90, and don’t go any further.
Role of The Spotter
Ideally you would have two spotters, one at each end of the bar. If you only have one spotter, you must use a rack. Your spotter should be able to advise you on technique, offer encouragement, assist safe removal and stacking of the bar, and offer hands-on assistance when needed or requested.
Using a Rack
It’s not just to hold the bar between “sets”, but is an integral part of the exercise. The height of the bar on the rack sets the starting and finishing positions and safely catches the bar if you can’t complete a repetition. Set the rack height so that it is slightly lower than shoulder height so you can step up to the weight and lift it off the rack without standing on tiptoe.
Calf and Hamstring Flexibility
Don’t exceed your level of flexibility or you will strain connective or muscle tissue by exceeding your functional range of movement or losing your balance. Calves and hamstrings need to be flexible to successfully squat.
Increase the Intensity Using Variety
Don’t just whack on extra weights, but consider increasing the range of movement, length of the barbell (start with dumbbells, then a short bar, then a longer bar, then an Olympic bar), or the carrying position of the bar (front squat vs back squat), and then amount of weight.
An educated and experienced instructor will be able to match exactly the right variation and intensity to your current fitness level, goals, and experience. Be a responsible consumer and ensuring your weight training program is being set and monitored by someone who will get you fit without getting you injured.