The debate about which is better, free weights or weight machines, for building muscle strength and tone has been raging for a long time. I specifically want to talk about which is better for the senior weight trainer and believe me, there are darn few online articles that talk about this aspect of weight training as it relates to we older folks.
So let’s start with the basics. I’m not writing an exhaustively researched article. After all, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of people have already written informative blogs and website articles on the topic, and some of them include a great deal of research.
I used my favorite method of learning stuff, Google, to search for information relative to answering my question. The top search results returned were the following links:
The number one website that came up when I Googled about free weights vs. weight machines for women was WomensHealthMag.com.
When I Googled about free weights vs. weight machines for seniors, no senior specific webpage results came back, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Both Bodybuilding and The Mayo Clinic articles were relatively brief, with Bodybuilding stating that free weights was the hands down preference, and the Mayo Clinic physician concluding that it should be a matter of individual choice and indicating no strong preference one way or the other.
BuiltLean’s article was also rather brief but it had the advantage, along with the Mayo Clinic’s write-up, of being medically reviewed by a physician. The author said his personal preference was free weights, but added that whatever selection you make should match your personal goals for working out.
The article on weight training and women said the clear-cut choice was free weights, but didn’t go into a lot of detail. It was also addressing women in general, that is, younger women.
Only Bret Contreras wrote at length, cited a great deal of research, and concluded that the jury was still out, so to speak, on which resistance exercise approach was superior.
However, Contreras, in describing advantages in using weight machines, said machines were better suited to the elderly. There’s no detail about what that means unfortunately, so I can’t determine for certain why he expressed that opinion. I suppose he may believe that because seniors are (supposedly) weaker than younger people, we don’t have the strength to both lift a free weight and balance it during the lift, but that’s just an assumption on my part. If that’s his assumption, then based on my personal experience (that is, if Contreras would consider me “elderly” at age 60), then he’s dead wrong.
That said, both he and BuiltLean agree that weight machines are a better fit for the beginner weight trainer regardless of age and I agree. Learning to use free weights has a higher learning curve, both in cognitively understanding the proper technique and in the actual physical execution. That learning curve means it’s more likely for the beginner to become injured using free weights than weight machines.
However the BuiltLean site also says that one of the cons of weight machines is the possibility of injury:
Although safer to use with lower levels of skill, it is still possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Overloading the same movement day in and day out is also an easy way to set yourself up for an overuse injury. Form is important and like anything else the danger is in the dose!
My take in reading all of this plus my personal experience would be for the inexperienced senior lifter (or inexperienced anyone) to start with weight machines and then gradually introduce some free weights. Eventually, depending on your goals, you would move away from machines, except for some plate loaded machines which are generally located in the free weight room, and exclusively or almost exclusively use free weights.
And that’s pretty much what I’ve done recently. Except for Leg Extensions and Lying Leg Curls, I do all of my work in the free weight room (I’ll have to bring you up to speed on how my routine has changed in some future blog post). I use dumbbells extensively, am starting to do more barbell work, and otherwise use plate loaded machines.
Frankly, the oft-mentioned law of diminishing returns took hold after a while when I was exclusively using weight machines. I was working harder but after a while, I stopped seeing much in the way of gains. It took my son David to convince me that I didn’t have to be intimidated by free weights and he’s the one who showed me the correct form for lifting, particularly dumbbells. Since then, I do my own research and adapt what I’ve learned to my own routine. But that took quite sometime so for you as a beginner, I highly recommend you start out on weight machines.
Both BuiltLean and Bret Contreras offer an extensive list of pros and cons for each method (click the links I provided above for their websites to read the specifics), but as I said, neither really talk about these selections and the senior weight trainer.
Does it really matter if their information isn’t written for older people?
It does if you not only want to achieve your goals, but to do so safely and without injury.
Is it Free Weights or Weight Machines for Seniors?
To get a more focused perspective, I turned to Logan Franklin and his website Senior Exercise Central. Regarding weight training and the senior, he says:
Age will take its toll, of course. But a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle will greatly accelerate the decline. While exercising with weights applies the brakes. In fact, with proper nutrition and this kind of training, muscle can not only be retained, some that has been lost can be rebuilt. It is the safest natural prescription there is for anti-aging. Put another way, barbells and dumbbells are the antidote to sarcopenia.
I don’t think Franklin is ruling out weight machines for seniors, but he’s been lifting since he was 15 years old and he’s about 78 now, so his experience in the gym and with weight training equipment and methods is extensive. He’s not a senior who just walked into the gym for the first time a year ago and who’s been trying to learn the ropes.
Also, when Franklin first started lifting, it was the early 1950s and the world of weight training was completely different, so his introduction to lifting would have been (to the best of my knowledge) exclusively with free weights.
I’ve already given you my take on the matter of seniors and the preference between weight machines and free weights. Start out with the former and gradually work toward the latter. That said, there may be some of you who will never desire to lift a barbell or dumbbell and that’s perfectly fine. I’m giving what I consider general suggestions aimed primarily at older people who want to become more fit. You still have to make a bunch of decisions based on your physical condition, your level of confidence, and your personal preferences and goals.
Whether you choose weight machines, free weights, or some combination, make sure you learn the proper method and technique before you begin. Get a knowledgeable gym partner or gym staff person to show you how, or start out by using a personal trainer or joining a training group at the gym. Don’t just try to wing it. Lack of knowledge is the shortest route between you and getting hurt. Don’t risk it.
One more thing. On my blog, you’ve seen examples of a senior who is a bodybuilder at age 74 and a woman starting out weight training at 91. Both use free weights so, unless there’s something about your physical condition or some other factor preventing it, if they can do workout with free weights, so can we.
Stay safe and stay healthy.
The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.