Are free weights better than unfree weights?
November 22, 2012 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Why strength training, and what to do? I've been taking advantage of my free gym membership a lot more lately and I see people lifting weights a lot. I do the elliptical and the "Nautilus"-type machines, but I've gotten the impression that the barbell-style stuff is better for me. Is this true, and if so, how do I go about this?

I've seen recommendations here and elsewhere for Starting Strength and The New Rules of Lifting for Women and although I'm somewhat nervous about the possibility of dropping a huge weight on my foot, I'm game to try it if it's much better (not the dropping, but the lifting.)

So is it better, and if so what resources should I look to? And, bonus question, WHY is it better? Thanks!

I am a 37-year-old lady btw.
posted by supercoollady to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Spend some time browsing through Stumptuous. She pretty much answers all the questions you've asked.
posted by Durin's Bane at 5:59 PM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Stumptuous is a great resource for women who want to lift weights.

I lift weights. I've been doing so for about a decade, on and off, and between myself and other people at the gym lifting weights, I have never seen anyone drop something on their foot.

That said, injury certainly is a risk. Proper form when lifting free weights (what you call bar bells) is definitely important, and stumptuous can help with that, as can Starting Strength.

Start slow, with weights that you are confident you can handle with ease. Get the form down, and start adding weight. No need to go at any speed other than the one at which you're comfortable.
posted by dfriedman at 6:19 PM on November 22, 2012

You're doing cardiovascular exercises, which will help to strengthen your lungs and heart, and increase your ability to do endurance work -- things where the limit is your lung capacity, for example. Strength training makes you, well, stronger. You tear and rebuild muscle groups on a recurring basis, and they become more capable of doing their jobs as a result: you can carry heavier things, perform explosive acts (like throwing a ball, or pushing something off of your chest, etc.), and generally stay healthy as a result of the increased muscle mass.

Both are important; neither is better than the other, as they involve different muscles and outcomes.
posted by ellF at 6:40 PM on November 22, 2012

WHY is it better?

It depends on what your goals are. What do you want to get out of your exercise routine?
posted by no regrets, coyote at 6:51 PM on November 22, 2012

Weight training isn't necessarily better than cardio; they serve different purposes. Lifting will certainly help with preventing osteoporosis, if that's a concern for you.

I'm a woman, I lift, and I really enjoy it. If you can, try to get someone to show you the ropes and give you some advice about your form. Consider a session or two with a personal trainer, but keep in mind that trainers come in varying degrees of competence and knowledge. (I've heard some horror stories about trainers of the "women shouldn't lift" school of thought.)
posted by baby beluga at 7:00 PM on November 22, 2012

Bone density is one benefit of weight training that is especially important for women and that you can't get from aerobic work. Bones are dynamic structures that reshape themselves to the load they experience. The loads produced by weightlifting stimulate them to become denser and stronger. This is especially important for women because women are more prone to osteoporosis and need to build the extra bone density earlier on to compensate for what they'll lose later in life. Aerobic work like the elliptical tends to involve many repetitions of a very light load, too light to produce the improvements in bone density that you would get from weightlifting.

By the way, I have no objections to Stumptuous and if it works for you that's great, but keep in mind that for weightlifting purposes women really don't need special techniques or programming or anything. Rippetoe actually has a chapter for women under his special populations section, and he spends the entire chapter explaining why women really aren't a special population.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:09 PM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Actually, my point about women not being a special population isn't entirely true. Women have some important endocrine differences (like, no testicles) which mean that, ceteris paribus, they'll lift lighter, progress more slowly, and bulk up less. Also, a healthy woman has much more body fat, so it's basically impossible for them to get that veiny, shrink-wrapped, muscle-bound look. Most women I know seem to consider this a feature, though, not a bug.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:17 PM on November 22, 2012

From the American College of Sports Medicine's position paper on resistance training:
Free Weights and Machines

Weight machines have been regarded as safer to use, easy to learn, and allow performance of some exercises that may be difficult with free weights, for example, knee extension. Machines help stabilize the body and limit movement about specific joints involved in synergistic force production, and machine exercises have demonstrated less neural activation when matched for intensity for most comparisons to free-weight exercises. Unlike machines, free weights may result in a pattern of intra- and intermuscular coordination that mimics the movement requirements of a specific task. Both free weights and machines are effective for increasing strength. Research shows that free-weight training leads to greater improvements in free-weight tests and machine training results in greater performance on machine tests. When a neutral testing device is used, strength improvement from free weights and machines appears similar. The choice to incorporate free weights or machines should be based on level of training status and familiarity with specific exercise movements as well as the primary training objective.

Evidence statement and recommendation

Evidence category A. For novice to intermediate training, it is recommended that free-weight and machine exercises are included.

Evidence category C. For advanced RT, it is recommended that emphasis be placed on free-weight exercises with machine exercises used to compliment program needs.
As far as resources go,, specifically the beginner section and the exercise directory, is top shelf with very credible authors. The ACSM position papers are fantastic across the board and cover nearly every aspect of fitness with scientific rigor.

Personally, having lifted for more than a few years, I would much rather do a squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. than all of the machine exercises required to hit the same muscle groups, if only for time management.
posted by doowod at 7:20 PM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind if you decide to start lifting weights, that a lot of the results you will get are determined by your diet. Since you are in essence tearing your muscles apart, you need to give them the right nutrients to grow stronger. The main concern is getting enough protein. If you don't eat enough protein and do a lot of weight lifting, you won't see the same level of improvement (or may actually get worse), which would seriously dampen any enthusiasm you might have about it. The simplest way around this is to buy some protein powder and drink protein shakes as needed to get the amount you need.

Another benefit of strength training is that your metabolism will increase somewhat, since the additional muscle will burn more calories. With cardio you burn the calories while working out, but with strength training you end up burning more calories all the time.
posted by markblasco at 9:02 PM on November 22, 2012

So is it better, and if so what resources should I look to? And, bonus question, WHY is it better?

'Better' is pretty open-ended. I prefer free weights (barbells and dumbbells) to machines, but still do a lot of running/swimming/cycling. Here's why:

Machines lock you into one path. The range of motion enforced by a nautilus-type machine will almost certainly not be the same as what your body is most capable of, due to bone length, flexibility, joint configurations that vary from person-to-person. The machine is meant to fit almost everyone, while the free weights can fit you.

Machines support the weight and keep it on track, isolating the muscles. This means the stabilization muscles don't have to come into play. This is good for physical therapy or to develop muscles in a specific way, but when using strength, you rarely use one muscle at a time. Muscles get used in groups, and machines restrict that.

Some benefits of strength training, like increased bone density, are easier to achieve using free weights.

Properly done, with good form, you should not worry about injury. The New Rules Of Lifting For Women and Stumptuous are both good resources. Starting Strength has great examples of form and is very information-dense.

Depending on what your goals are, you can find a program that is right for you.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:48 AM on November 23, 2012

For me, lifting is more fun, more rewarding physically, and ultimately easier to stick to because it's more fun and engaging than running on a treadmill for forty-five minute a day. A general rule of thumb is that machines are slightly more one-dimensional (they're excellent for isolation exercises and can be used with lighter weight) and barbells/free weights are compound and meant to be used to improve performance and strength on a broader spectrum. As a female you'll probably encounter some "women shouldn't lift because you'll look like a man" nonsense along the way; don't let it discourage you. I think women that lift weights and carry more muscle are very attractive, not to mention healthier and more confident.

There are many good resources out there. Forums have always been useful for me because of the Q and A aspect; check out, they've got a spot just for ladies who like to lift. Good luck!
posted by znith at 6:21 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the answers! They've been beyond helpful so far. I may not have been completely clear in my original question--I was wondering about the benefits of free weight training vs. strength-building machines, not vs. cardio machines like the treadmill.

Wondering if you get all the benefits of free weights (bone density increase, for example) from said machines, and if free weights are more efficient for building muscle (this question well-answered already). I'll likely keep doing cardio in any event because I enjoy the elliptical and it's my chance to watch sitcoms I don't get to watch normally...
posted by supercoollady at 7:26 AM on November 23, 2012

Ah, sorry. The only Nautilus machines I've ever seen were ellipticals, but the internet informs me that they manufacture a wide variety of exercise equipment.

Machines support the weight and keep it on track, isolating the muscles. This means the stabilization muscles don't have to come into play. (the man of twists and turns)

This is the answer I was given. More specifically,

- Because machines don't develop the stabilizers and synergists in proportion to the main lifting muscles, you will at best be unable to use your strength in real situations and at worst be able to use just enough of it to fail catastrophically. A common example is people with strong legs and arms, but a weak core connecting them.

- Because machines keep you on track, you can develop severe imbalances by habitually using one side to cover effectively for deficiencies in the other. For example, when bench pressing a bar, I'll notice my weak side lagging behind my strong side. When bench pressing in a machine, I can compensate effectively by pushing harder with my strong side. So instead of revealing the problem so that I can correct it, the machine is silently exacerbating it.

- Machines tend to be constructed to move through simple, often linear or circular paths, even though the mechanics of the human body would suggest a more complicated path. For example, Smith machines run the bar along a linear rail even though both theoretical models of the squat and videotapes of strong squatters indicate that the bar should rise along a slightly sinusoidal path.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:07 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of the best free weight exercises are also hard to master. Squat and deadlift in particular. Many so-called personal trainers don't really understand how these exercises work, and/or don't do them themselves.

Look for someone who has trained professional athletes and has a degree in kinesiology, sports science or related field. Don't work with someone who did the 8-week course and is now 'certified'

Learning proper form is critical for these exercises.
posted by 4midori at 10:23 AM on November 24, 2012

I just took a Women on Weights class, which was great. One advantage of using weights instead of Nautilus, etc is that you have a greater challenge -- you have to do more to keep your balance, lift evenly, etc. so you exercise a bit more of your body than just the one targeted area.

In my class we did some work on machines (lat pullowns, for example), and more time with the weights we held in our hands.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:08 PM on November 24, 2012

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