In the world of resistance training, one of the most common debates is whether one should use machines or dumbbells (free-weights) for their strength-training goals. Despite the slick look and new technologies of the latest fitness machines out on the market, dumbbells are one of the very few tools used in strength training that have stood the test of time.
Simply stated, dumbbells are better because they are free weights. This means that you have to work to stabilize the weight, instead of the shiny machine. And that's the goal: for you to do the work.
The use of dumbbells gives you a much more comprehensive strengthening effect because the workout engages your stabilizer muscles, in addition to the muscle you may be pin-pointing. Without all of the belts and artificial stabilizers of a machine, you also engage your core muscles, which are your body's natural stabilizers. In this sense, every exercise also becomes a more comprehensive total-body workout. Free-weight lifting causes your body to engage its natural strengthening tendencies. The same person that can bench press 200 pounds with a bar or a machine, may be only able to lift 160 pounds of total weight with free weights. With dumbbells, results are quicker because you have to work harder to stay stable in the entire body.
Dumbbells also give the user a better range of motion. The movement that it takes to lift a dummbell uses not only our natural weight baring tendencies, but also the body's natural patterns of movement. In this sense, free-weights are more balanced, and more functional. An example of this functionality in the real world would be that of an athlete training for a sport. Through the use of the free-weights, the athlete could create a workout routine that mimicked critical movement patterns that he or she repeats while engaged in the sport. Similarly, there are many cases where we can safely "multitask" with free-weights, such as in the case of doing biceps curls and lunges at the same time. In this way, you can perform a variety of exercises in less time than switching from machine to machine.
Furthermore, working out with dumbbells is something that most of us can afford to do from our own homes. In this sense, they carry over into normal life better than a machine can. The sheer variety that a couple of pairs of dumbbells can offer is unparalleled when compared to a machine. Many experts agree that dumbbells also create quicker, more visible results than exercise machines, because of their "natural" stabilizer effect, as well as the use of many other supporting muscle groups.
Price wise, the set of machines you would need to purchase to train all of your different muscle groups would cost a fortune for a home gym. A standard set of adjustable dumbbells can cost as little as $200 to $300 dollars. Compared to the price of buying the machines yourself, or even a standard gym membership, your own set of dumbbells are a great value for optimizing outcome on your body and your wallet. Space wise, today's adjustable dumbbell sets can be easily stored in the corner of a room or in a closet. Machines are bulky, and especially for a home-gym, require that you have an extra room in your home specifically for working out. This is simply unrealistic for most of us.
That said, there are some great benefits to using machines that should be mentioned. Particularly from a therapeutic standpoint, machines enable us to work a target muscle by pinpointing the exact and optimal range of motion. More modern machines also have cams that can alter the resistance in accordance with the muscle's strength curve. In this way, we can progressively load resistance, something that is impossible to do with free weights. Another advantage of machines is their ability to increase safety. The machine greatly prevents injuries from dropping a load on yourself, as well as hyper-extension or over-motioning.
All in all, your best bet for a comprehensive work-out is to use a combination of both, with an big emphasis on dumbbells and free-weight lifting. Use machines to target specific muscles, or to heal and strengthen an injury safely. And remember, dumbbells can be just as safe as a machine, if used with the proper awareness, proper training and general safety guidelines. Make the decision to incorporate adjustable dumbbells into your home or gym practice, and start witnessing some new changes in your strength process.
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