Machines vs. Free weights

When it comes to building strength one of the most common questions people ask me if it is good to do machines, and if so which ones?

“Come with me if you want to live”

This question always makes me laugh because it sounds like something out of the Terminator.

The bottom line is if you are looking to lose weight and build strength free weights such as dumb bells, kettle bells, barbells and even our own body weight are better options over machines.

Lifting free weights require us force us to use more muscle groups than just the ones performing the movement in order keep our core and other joints stable.

Unlike machines which have us move on fixed planes and often times isolate a certain muscle group, Free allow us to move freely and train muscle groups and chains of muscle groups that allow us to mimic real life movements.

The thing is it can take a while to get proficient at free weight movements, and one wrong movement can lead to an injury.

This is where machines have the upper hand.

I believe machines are great for people just starting out and need to build strength.

Free weights have the ability to move all over the place if you lack proper form or joint stability.  One bad rep where the weight is not controlled can lead to muscle tweaks and tears.

Machines operate on fixed patterns which work to stabilize the weight for you, keeping you safer.

The fixed pattern offers a low learning curve to strength building as well.  Most machines are very easy to hop on and start going to work on with very little coaching required.

Everyone’s goal should be to work up to performing exercises with free weight.  The problem is because machines are easier people stick with them and perform the same movements and never progress.

The lack of progression will cause you to plateau regardless if you are looking to lose weight or build strength.

If you are just starting out with strength training I suggest you start with a combination of machine exercises and body weight stability exercises.  This will help to build strength while building core and joint stability for free weights.

Here is a sample beginner full body machine workout can follow to work their way up to free weights.

A1)3×10 Leg press

A2) :30 plank hold

(super set these two movements)

B1) 3×10 Chest press

B2) :30 wall sit

(super set)

C1)3×10 Rows

C2):30 lunge hold each side

(super set)





Training log 6/20

Well it’s official started week 1 day 1 of the program yesterday.  Got through all my testing last week.  Hit 280 for 5 on my deadlift and 125 for 5 on my over head press.

Now keep in mind these are not true 5 rm maxes.

With this kind of testing it is not about grinding through the reps.  I am not sacrificing form to squeak out one more.

Instead I am looking/feeling for changes in bar speed and form.

Jim Wendler even suggests that it is better to start off lighter than try to push heavier.  The hardest part is taking the ego out of it.


Yesterday started the program.  I just got an airdyne (for $100) over the weekend.  Did my first 20(ish) minute ride yesterday  morning.  Boy did that suck.

The first 10 minutes were OK, but needed to break a lot the second 10.  Guess my legs are that out of condition.  The airdyne is a necessary part of the program not just for conditioning purposes, but recovery as well.

Later on I hit the gym for my squat and bench day.  Everything felt good lifting.  Wasn’t sure how things were gonna go after working a double at my second job the day before.

I have also noticed that since starting to lift heavy again I have been wanting to nap more lately.  Not sure if it is because of the humidity we have had, or if they are muscle growth naps.

Have my second day of riding the bike, which I am so looking forward too (sarcasm alert) and a body weight circuit lined up for today.

I will check back in next week to let you know how things are going.

Why there is a time place for everything.

I finally broke down and did something I never thought I would do again……   I joined a gym.

I swear I only did it because I need access to heavy weight.

I am starting my off season rugby training program.  This is a time devoted to developing size and strength.

This means I’m getting back to the basic strength exercises of squat, dead lifts, bench press and over head press.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I am coming off a training phase based around a minimalist training program that used kettlebell and bodyweight exercises done either in a complex or a circuit.

The complexes allowed me to move fluidly and do a lot of work in a short amount of time.

That training style was more ideal for my in season needs.  At this point I needed to make sure I worked good movement to prevent bad movement habits from developing.

Bad movement can lead to poor on field performance or even an injury. 

 The kettlebell and bodyweight movements were just what I needed to recover, and maintain strength to prevent those things from happening.   
The kettlebell and bodyweight movements allowed me to address mobility, stability and retrain movement in ways I felt the barbell couldn’t.

At this point in my training I feel the barbell others me a better chance to increase my raw strength.

This doesn’t mean the kettlebell and bodyweight movements are completely out of my training, they just aren’t the focus.

The kettlebell and bodywright stuff are used on my non lifting days to help me recover, build volume, work as accessory exercises and keep me feeling athletic.

What I am trying to show you if that you don’t have to be married to one style of training all the time. 

There is no “bad program” out there.  But there is a time and place for everything.

Your training needs to reflect your goals.  As your goals change, so should your training.

I am excited to be back in the gym and touching heavy barbells again.  The time away from the barbell has me excited to get back to hitting a lifting routine.  

Don’t worry though, those complexes will be back in time for the fall season.

Training log

Hey guys new feature.  I am going to start sharing my daily training.  I will be following the Classic Jim Wendler’s weighted vest 5/3/1 program from his new book 5/3/1 Forever.  I will be following this for at least the next 10 weeks.  I am looking to put on size and strength for the fall rugby season.

This program will require 2 days of lifting, 3 days of bodyweight/weighted vest circuits and daily airdyne riding adding up to 30 miles per week.  I do not have an airdyne yet but am looking for one and should have one by this weekend.

I started the program yesterday.  This week will be spent finding my 5rm in the lifts.  Yesterday I found my 5rm for the squat and bench.  This will help me determine my training max for the program.  I did not work until failure, but once my bar speed slowed down significantly I did not go higher.

I built up to 245 on the squat and 205 on the bench.

Today I will be doing my first bodyweight circuit consisting of 5 rounds of 10 push ups, 5 chin ups, 10 kb snatch each arm with a 24lbs kettlebell.  This first 3 week cycle I will train without a weight vest.

Rest day tomorrow then Thursday will be my dead lift and over head press testing day.

Exercise….what is it good for?


Exercise is not the most important thing when it comes to losing weight.

People who want to lose weight tend to think the more they move the more weight they will lose.  This falls under the myth that our weight is controlled through the amount of calories we consume vs. the amount of calories we burn.

Target acquired.  Prepared to drop truth bombs

You can’t simply outwork a bad diet.  The fact is if you want to truly lose weight, paying attention to the quality of your nutrition is essential. But that is the topic for a future post.

Exercise, while not the most effective weight loss tool, plays a vital role in living a happy and healthy life.  Below we will take a look at the positive impact exercise brings to the table.

  1. Increased Strength
  2. Increase Mobility/flexibility
  3. Injury prevention
  4. Increased bone density
  5. Improves Cardio-vascular function
  6. Improves Coordination
  7. Metabolic effect
  8. Mental health

Increased Strength

It is necessary for us to  exert forces onto objects in this world.  We require to generate force when we walk or try to lift a 300 lbs barbell.   Hell we need to generate force just to keep our spine erect and stable.

Our muscles are what allow us to generate force.  It is through exercise that we are able to develop the muscle strength so we can exert force to manipulate objects and be able to move.

Athletes require the most force production.  Things like speed and power require athletes to be able to manipulate the ball, ground, their opponent etc. in a variety of ways.  This requires a lot of strength and force production from their muscles.

I am not saying everyone needs to be on the level of an athlete, but we should have enough strength to perform everyday tasks like carry groceries or put dishes away in the cupboard.

Increased Mobility/Flexibility

Technically this could fall under strength as well.  Strength is not just about how fast our muscles can contract and relax to generate force, but also the distance the muscle/joint can move.

When we talk about flexibility we talk about lengthening our actual muscles.  When we talk about mobility we talk about taking a joint through a full range of motion.

If flexibility and mobility are limited so is our strength.  Tight muscles prevent us from efficiently generating force.

Exercise is like the oil which helps us move.  Proper exercise should take our muscles and joints through their full range of motion which in turn stretch and strengthen muscles.

Keep in mind, like strength, changes in mobility and flexibility are gradual and you should see results over a period of time.


Exercise helps our body learn how to move properly.  Our bodies use groups of individual muscles to perform movement.

Muscle groups are activated by our central nervous system (brain and nerves) to perform movements.  These are called motor patterns.  The more a motor pattern is trained (muscle activation) the easier it becomes for us to do.

Many times I find that my clients have developed poor motor patterns from years of using wrong muscle groups.  This often occurs for two reasons.  One being muscle tightness that restricts movement. And two smaller muscle groups take over the workload of bigger muscle groups because the bigger muscle groups are not being activated or are weak.

This is most evident in the hip hinge (or dead lift) movement where people use their low back muscles instead of their powerful posterior leg muscles (hamstring and glutes) which are deactivated or tight from things like prolonged sitting.

Injuries can also effect motor patterns as we tend to compensate by using other muscle groups to perform a task that the injured area usually performs (i.e limping).  This is why therapy is important after an injury to strengthen and relearn motor patterns.

Exercise is a way for us to create a controlled environment to re-develop good motor patterns and to relearn proper movement.

Increased bone density

Loading the body with heavy weight helps our bones become denser.  Dense bones mean less breaks, and also helps prevent conditions such as osteoporosis.

Injury Prevention

The combination of strength, flexibility/mobility, increased bone density, and coordination goes a long way to helping us prevent injuries.


Increased cardio-respiratory function

Excuse me as I get sciency for a second.

Exercise helps keep our cardio-respiratory function running efficiently.

Our cardio-respiratory system provides us with two functions.

  1. Deliver oxygen throughout the body
  2. Expel the body of acid (carbon dioxide)

Our muscles require oxygen to produce energy so they can exert force onto objects.  Blood carries oxygen throughout the body

During exercise we place our body under stress.  In a stressed state we need to get oxygen to the muscles quickly.  This is why our heart rate increases, because we need oxygen rich blood to keep creating energy to complete our task.

The by product of using energy is acid.  Our body doesn’t like being in an acidic state and therefore needs to get rid of the waste quickly through exhalation.

The stressed conditions work to help our heart and lungs work efficiently to get oxygen rich blood into the body, and acidic carbon dioxide out of the body improving the health of our cardio-respiratory system.

Exercise is also great at lowering blood pressure as it requires the muscles to absorb sugar out of the blood to create energy.

Improves metabolic efficiency

More science on the way.

As I already  mentioned our muscles require energy to generate force.  Oxygen is one way we create energy.  Another way is through a natural sugar called glucose.

Glucose is the simplest way for us to make energy.  We get glucose from breaking down carbohydrates.  Glucose from carbohydrates are found in our blood, but get absorbed and stored in muscles and liver.  If all those stores are full that is when they get stored as lipids (fat) in the body to be broken down when our glucose stores run dry.

After an intense workout our muscles need to refill their energy stores so we are ready to perform any task that might come our way.

Glucose can either come from breaking down carbohydrates that we consume, or from lipid stores.

The hormone insulin helps the muscles absorb glucose out of the blood.

Now I can already here you saying “but Steve if our muscles break down fat won’t that mean exercise causes us to lose weight?”

Yes exercise does help us lose weight.  But nutrition plays a more important role.

While exercise increases our efficiency to absorb glucose, you can’t continue to overfill the glucose stores in the muscles because then they get stored as lipids.  Controlling sugar intake is vital to keeping this in check and no  matter how much you exercise you can’t escape this.

Exercise improves mood

Exercise not only helps us physically but  mentally as well.  Exercise is a great way to deal with stress.

When we exercise it offers us an escape.  For a brief amount of time we are able to take our mind off of what is going on in our lives, and are forced to be in tune with our body to hit a PR lift or just get through an intense workout.  It’s like a daily mini vacation.

On top of the mini vacation it offers a release.  Exercise, especially of the intense variety, requires us to generate force.  Exerting our force onto something does wonders to help us relieve stress.

This is why people love to hit the heavy bag after work or scream into pillows.  These actions are forceful and help us to relieve pent up stress.

Exercise also helps us release endorphin hormones.  Endorphins give us a euphoric feel.  Some people call this a “runner high.”  These endorphins are natural anti-depressants that allow us to develop more self-esteem and happiness.

Exercise is a great self-esteem builder by itself as well.  Seeing ourselves progress by lifting more weight, or performing new movements (or movements we never thought we could do again) plays a major role in improving our mood and feeling happier.

Although exercise might not be the weight loss tool we all thought it was, it plays a vital role in keeping us healthy and happy.