Why Free Weights and Machines Are Not Mutually Exclusive

How technology and technique have shifted free-weight use beyond the barbell.

Free weight training has the potential to improve strength and body mass in a relatively short time. Because it works with typical planes of movement, it can also positively impact everyday movement. While it offers important health benefits when done properly, it can lead to injuries, such as sprains, strains, and fractures if not done properly.

That’s where the marriage of weights and machines comes in.

“The introduction of machines alongside free weights was a natural path consistent with the goal of maximum results in the shortest amount of time,” says Tyler Hobson, global director of strength at Pendulum and Rogers Athletic.

It all started in the early 1950s with the debut of the Smith machine. Invented by fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne, who rigged up a sliding apparatus in his gym in the 1950s, it consists of a barbell fixed within steel rails allowing only vertical or near-vertical movement. His goal was to optimize squats.

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In 1957, bodybuilding champion and gym owner Harold Zinkin introduced a multi-stack weight machine, which would become the Universal Gym (the name would be discontinued when the company was acquired by Nautilus in 2006). It allowed users to easily switch between weights by simply moving a pin up or down a stack—the first example of free-weight plate loading—and combined several stations into one stationary machine so that lifters could train more quickly and efficiently.

A Wide Range of Benefits

Once viewed as a way to maximize free-weight-training footprints, these machines have become more of what LaLanne originally envisioned as a means to improve motion, technique, and more for users.

Jeff Casebolt, former instructor of sports and exercise sciences at West Texas A&M University and Director of Biomechanical Research for Dynavec Multi-Directional Resistance Systems, outlines several end-user benefits offered by machines, including improved form, increased safety, and stronger joints and muscular development.

  • Form. “Better form and technique are the result of fixed-movement patterns,” says Casebolt. “Once the equipment has been properly set up to fit the exerciser, the strength arc is fixed, and it is the exerciser’s responsibility to work with the machine against the resistance. A fixed movement pattern is beneficial for recruiting the agonist, or contracting, muscle group and minimizing synergistic muscle activity allowing the exerciser to ‘internally’ focus on the isolated muscular contribution, which is often termed ‘mind-to-muscle connection.’”

  • Mitigating Risk. When lifting free weights, a high level of developed skill is necessary to safely perform each exercise; therefore, integrating that skillset time for every exerciser takes time, he says. Exercisers lifting free weights often do so without the proper knowledge or skills, which increases the chance of injury. The fixed movement pattern, coupled with the balance offered by machines, helps offset inexperience thus reducing the potential for injury. “Safety is also enhanced in that users don’t require spotters when using machines,” he adds.

  • Stronger Joints, Improved Muscular Development. “Another advantage of utilizing machines during a lifting session is being able to create movement patterns, joint loads, and unique joint angles that may significantly influence the muscles responsible for the intended strength arc of a joint,” says Casebolt.

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Another advantage the machines offer helping those new to the gym acclimate effectively.

“Once a person develops the skill necessary to successfully maneuver their way around a weight room then plate-loaded equipment and free weights become interchangeable,” he notes. “However, when working with novice lifters, I will spend my time utilizing machines to speed up the learning curve, increase the likelihood of success, and hopefully create a long-term habit by teaching a step-by-step tier method of developing strength.

“My opinion with regards to addressing the differences or similarities between free weight and plate-loaded machine is knowing how to properly use the tools in your toolbox, and when or why you would program one form of strength equipment or the other,” he continues. “We hear ‘better and best exercise’ far too much from professionals who are programming strength when the advice should be more along the lines of how each exercise is capable of positively influencing a desired outcome.”

“A biomechanically sound machine instantly provides results by reducing the skill needed to perform the movement,” says Hobson. “It can take years to master a complex Olympic movement. By removing that long learning curve, we can provide immediate results.”

Maximizing Movement

Pendulum Performance machines, notes Hobson, reduce the skills necessary to perform exercises while increasing the effectiveness of the movement.

Rogers Athletic, Pendulum Strength’s parent company, has been manufacturing athletic equipment since the 1930s and has a long track record serving collegiate and professional sports programs. Pendulum Strength has been manufacturing strength equipment for these programs for over 25 years and has been part of Rogers Athletic since 2007. The company recently moved into the club space a new line of machines called Pendulum Performance.

“The benefits of strength and conditioning have spread beyond the field of play, and into homes, offices, and retirement communities. The growing number of people participating at gym and wellness centers is staggering.” Hobson says. “Today, we are taking the very tools we have created for our nation’s top athletes and putting them in the hands of every fitness enthusiast.”

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The new Pendulum Performance line features four focused pieces, with more coming in the future:

  • 3 Way Row. “Training the upper back is a fundamental part of strength training,” he says. “The muscles that make up what we refer to as the ‘back’ are complex and perform a variety of movements in connection with the upper arms. The primary function is to pull the arms back from an extended position either down or in. To target different areas of the back more precisely, we have created a machine that emphasizes the three main hand positions, underhand, overhand, and neutral.”

  • Shoulder Press. This machine is geared to making overhead pressing possible to many who would otherwise not be able to perform this movement. As the user lifts their arms upward, the arm begins to travel up and forward during the pressing movement, allowing the shoulder to function naturally. Being able to maintain this natural pressing position allows for continuous tension on the targeted musculature.

  • Power Squat. The Pendulum Performance Power Squat was designed to capture all the muscle stimulation of a free-weight squat while minimizing the dangers and risks associated with this movement. Many individuals have difficulties due to biomechanical weaknesses, injuries, irregular limb lengths, as well as hand, forearm, or casting issues that do not allow the grasping of a bar. The Power Squat’s patented floating yoke allows lifters of all sizes and limb lengths to position their bodies into a biomechanically correct position. It allows the lifter to place their feet where needed without the problem of falling forward from trying to balance the load. Knees can stay in a healthy position without excessive strain and athletes can position themselves to minimize strain on the lower back.

  • Chest Press. “The Chest Press was created to maximize the stimulation to the pectoral muscles while minimizing the impact to the shoulder joint,” states Hobson. “We achieve this by creating a unique strength curve that maintains tension on the chest while simultaneously placing the body and its appendages in the perfect pressing position. The handles move independently, so balanced strength gains are achieved, and weaknesses can quickly be corrected.”

“All machines are not created equal,” Hobson concludes. “The body is a complex system of levers powered by muscular contractions. Exercise machines should move in harmony within these systems’ constraints. Pendulum Strength has over 25 years of experience in developing these machines with the aid of industry professionals, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, and our nation’s top strength and conditioning programs. The quest has always been to increase results in less time using tools and strategic training. Pendulum has continued this pursuit by creating apex instruments to maximize results.”

To learn more about Pendulum Performance, stop by their booth at IHRSA 2021 or visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to Club Business International.