Why Barbells are Better Than Machines
When you walk into most gyms, especially into what we call “globo gyms,” you see a sea of machines and rows of cardio equipment. If you look hard enough, you’ll sometimes find a squat rack under a thin layer of dust. Fortunately, the tide has been changing recently and more gyms are opening with the focus being on barbell training.
Which route should you take? Barbells or machines? Are barbells or “free weights” truly better than machines?
Machines that make you do things like leg extensions, hamstring curls, pec flys, and even wrist curls were a novelty a few decades ago. They made it possible for gyms to operate and people to train without instruction from a coach or much intimidation. And for that reason, insurance companies love them.
If you really get down to it, machines, not just gym machines, exist to perform tasks for humans, and in the case of gym machines, tasks that the human muscular system does not actually perform in regular physical activity. In what sport or activity would you ever complete a hamstring curl? Machines move the weight for you.
This is completely different when it comes to barbells. Machines take the risk, responsibility and reward away from the trainee while the barbell gives all of that back the lifter. With a barbell, you have skin in the game while also allowing for scaleable loading.
Barbells vs Machines for Strength Development
With all the muscles, joints, and bones of the system moving, operating, or supporting the movement according to their normal anatomical functions, they provide the best dosage and means to elicit a meaningful strength adaptation which will carry over into any sport or daily activity.
It’s as basic as the requirement to stand up for barbell training (bench excluded) that requires a great amount of muscle mass, whereas for most machine work, you either sit or lie down! Training with a weight on your back or in your hands makes you responsible for not falling over – which is the whole intent behind training isolation and balance exercises.
Additionally, if we’re looking to be efficient with our time and train the most muscle mass across the most effective range of motion with the most weight possible, nothing comes close to the Squat, Deadlift, Press and Bench. Everything else is just an accessory movement.
But you may be thinking now, “Certainly machines can be hard.” True! Anything can be hard. And they are admittedly simple. But are they effective?
Let’s go back to criteria for effective exercise.
Do machines use more muscle mass than barbells?
No, machines use isolated movements meant to train the body in a circuit. It takes half-a-dozen machines to train all the same muscles that work in one rep of a squat.
Do machines use a long, effective range of motion?
Everyone is built differently, but machines have a built-in range of motion. This means you move to the machine’s range of motion, not your own. This is neither long nor effective.
Do machines allow you to lift heavy weights?
Most machines do not. Because the lack of muscle mass involved in most movements, you cannot use heavy weights. This means a lot less training stress and a low-ceiling on the benefits you get from machines.
So, with machines you give up effectiveness for simplicity.
And finally, one more reason we like barbells is that everybody starts at a different place and progresses at a different rate. The standard barbell weights 45 pounds, but we can use bars that weigh as little as 5 pounds with beginners. And with the right plates, you can load the bar with as little as half a pound increments. This means the barbell can be loaded to train anybody with all of the basic barbell movements.
The best training implements not only meet you where you are on day 1 but allow you to load the movement at a rate appropriate for you and your level of training advancement. You can train with 37lbs or 637lbs – dumbbells can’t even do that.
The only problem with barbells is that there are not enough people out there teaching trainees how to use them correctly or advocating their use. That is changing. Starting Strength and Starting Strength Online Coaching have started an entire movement of educating everyone about barbells, making them no longer just for powerlifters or bodybuilders.
Sure, there is a learning curve to barbell training. But, unlike a machine-based program, you won’t waste a single minute of training learning and training with barbells.