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Cables vs Machines vs Free Weights

cables vs free weights vs machines– which is better?

One of the most intimidating parts of walking into a gym is being surrounded by complicated equipment with no clue of how they work. So, we've created this guide to break down the different types of weight training equipment, their advantages, and how to utilize them in your training. 

Muscular Stress and Adaptation

Muscular stress and adaptation are the fundamental concepts behind resistance training. It all starts with General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which is how the body changes in response to external stimuli. There are four stages in the adaptation cycle - homeostasis, alarm, resistance, and detraining. 

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Homeostasis is your body's maintenance stage. It is a composition of the physical and chemical conditions of the body that keep it steady and functional. In order to break homeostasis, a powerful enough stimulus needs to be applied to the muscles. Without an impactful stimulus, the body has no reason to adapt and improve its capacity for work. 

Alarm is when your body registers new stimuli and enters a catabolic phase. At this point in your workout, muscle tissues are breaking down and there's a temporary decrease in your overall capacity. 

Resistance is when the body enters a constructive anabolic state. If capable, your body adapts to a new load capacity. This is the point at which muscular super compensation occurs. 

Detraining occurs when no additional stimuli are presented. If no further resistance is implemented then the body reverts to or digresses beyond its prior load capacity. If additional resistance is applied, the body begins to adapt to a progressively higher load. 

This process is how both muscular hypertrophy and strength develop. So, knowledge of the process is critical to understanding how selecting different equipment affects the overall outcome. 

Weight Training Equipment 

When walking into the gym you're likely to notice at least three different types of equipment: free weights, cable weights, and machines. Each category has unique qualities that cater to different skill levels and fitness goals. 

Cable Weights

Cable weights are machines that use a cable pulley system to create limited movement patterns. Many pieces of equipment fall into this bracket, like the Cable Lat Pull Down and Cross-Cable. 

This method offers two benefits. First, the tension exerted on a muscle throughout the range of motion during exercise is important no matter what the training goal is. Cables have a more consistent tension curve compared to free weights and machines. Secondly, cables are versatile and can be adjusted for varying heights, angles, and have attachments to target different muscles.

This type of equipment requires a general knowledge of positioning in relation to target muscle groups. Since there are different attachments, cables are more complex than machines. This means that though you won't have to move locations as much, there will still be an increased time between sets. All things considered, cables are a great intermediary weight training tool.  

Machine Weights

Non-cable machines are categorized by their fixed movement patterns. Equipment like the Leg Press, Smith machine, and Adductor machine are a part of this category.

Unlike cables or free weights, machines do not require coordination or stabilization. They are adjustable for height, but limit movement in a precise way. Therefore, the workload is isolated to specific muscles and the focus is on muscular contraction alone. This means that target muscle failure is the only limiting factor to your training. 

Despite how intimidating machines can be, they are a great starting point for beginners. Most machines have instructions printed on the base along with pictures of how to complete the exercise and the muscles being targeted. 

Free Weights

Dumbells, kettlebells, barbells, sand bags, plates, and medicine balls are all free weights because they apply external resistance without a fixed movement pattern.

Free weights offer specific advantages such as the ability to move the weight through all planes of motion. Movements can then be organized in a series suited to individual training preferences without having to move locations or switch machines. In addition, they require consistent recall of stabilizer muscles in addition to the target muscle. 

The need for self-stabilization can also be a hindrance since mobility may be limited by external factors. Weaker systems in the body, limited physical space, and pained joints or ligaments all pose a larger challenge with free weights than with other methods. 

Free weights seem beginner friendly as they are always accessible and require little instruction to use. However, they're not as simple as they look. Free weights require a general knowledge of stabilization, range of motion, and a mental catalog of exercises conducive to specific muscle groups. Without at least a  minor understanding of these concepts, you put yourself at a higher risk for injury.

Training Applications

Here is a short list of things to consider when choosing which equipment is right for you:

  • Tip for Beginners: Machines will be your best friend as you learn to navigate your anatomy. They're a great place to begin familiarizing yourself with proper form and target muscles. In addition, starting on a machine can reduce your risk of injury. Pay attention to how your body feels as your muscles contract.
  • Tip for Strength and Hypertrophy: Strength training is a neural response that improves muscular firing rate, synchronicity, and recruitment. In strength training, the goal is to work with a progressively higher load, longer rest times, and a lower rep/set count. Hypertrophy is the body's response to stress and recovery that builds muscle mass and endurance. For hypertrophy, the key is to use a piece of equipment that supports a higher set/rep count, lower total weight, and shorter rest time. In both cases, the priority is how the equipment is used rather than what type of equipment it is. However, many people training in these phases prefer free weights for the individualization it brings to their training regimen. 
  • Tip for Stabilization: If you are wanting to work on stabilization, cables are a great place to start. They allow you to work through your range of motion at different heights and angles. They do not require as much coordination as free weights, which makes them ideal for weighted stabilization training.
  • Tip for Safety: Start with a lower weight, a slower pace, and a higher sense of observation when using any weight training equipment for the first time. 

If you're just getting started with weight lifting, take a look at our glossary of lifting routines


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