Free Weights vs Machines and Compound vs Isolation
Which exercises you choose and how you perform them will depend a lot on your goals. However, there are some general concepts that will help you along. In this article, I am going to talk about compound vs isolation movements and about training with free weights vs machines. These are two of the most basic choices when deciding which exercises to use. It is also an area where many gym goers tend to go wrong. For some reason, in my experience at the gym, it is particularly women that tend to pick the less effective exercises.
Compound vs Isolation
Compound exercises use multiple joints to perform the movement, while isolation exercises use single joints. Compound exercises therefore employ more major muscle groups than isolation exercises (which rely primarily on one). For example, the bench press is compound and uses both the shoulder and elbow joint. To make the lift, you would use the chest, shoulders, and triceps as primary movers. By comparison, a pec deck machine or a dumbbell fly exercise is isolation, and relies almost exclusively on the chest muscles.
As a general rule, compound exercises are better for the following reasons:
- They build muscle more effectively by releasing more anabolic hormones, i.e. your body’s natural testosterone and growth hormone. No matter what your goals, this is a good thing because it increases the effectiveness of your workout. The more taxing the exercises the greater this effect.
- They take less time to effectively train your body.
- They burn more calories.
- They reduce the risk of overtraining a single muscle group.
- They are more likely to build functional strength, since they simulate actual movements that we use (e.g. pushing, pulling, etc). Rarely in life do you perform an isolated movement.
I am not saying that isolation exercises have no place, but rather that they should be supplementary exercises that complement the main routine, which should be based on compound exercises. Beginners in particular should minimize the number of isolation exercises.
Example of isolation exercise on leg extension machine
Free Weights vs Machines
Machines offer a more stable platform to carry out a movement in weight training. For the same type of movement (e.g. a bench press vs a machine press, or a leg press vs a squat) a free-weight exercise will use a large number of stabilizing muscles to keep the weight or your body in balance as you perform the move. At the most extreme end are dumbbells, which unlike other free-weights (e.g. barbells or cables) can move in any direction, thus requiring the greatest degree of stabilization.
As a general rule, free-weights are superior to machines for the exact same reasons that compound exercises are better than isolation exercises. I.e. they build muscle more effectively, they build functional strength, they reduce the risk of overtraining, etc.
So, What are the Best Exercises?
It follows that as a general rule, your workout would be better off if it was based on compound, free-weight exercises. I use the term "general rule" because you may have some condition that does not allow you to perform certain exercises. Again, there is room for some isolation work too, particularly for more advanced lifters (particularly bodybuilders), but they should be chosen and performed with care.
For the purpose of general muscle building and/or strength, the king and queen of all exercises are widely considered to be the squat and the deadlift. These exercises incorporate a huge number of muscles beyond the primary movers and tax the core significantly. No other exercises impact your natural testosterone as much. These are the two most effective exercises you can do for more or less any training goal, since they are invaluable tools for size, strength, power, functional strength/fitness, maintaining mobility & balance as you age, and athletic ability — depending on which variant is chosen and how they are performed.
Example of free-weight, compound exercises (performed with barbells, dumbbells, or cables when applicable):
Competition deadlift with good form
- Squat (back, front, etc.)
- Deadlift (conventional or sumo)
- Power cleans
- Bench press (flat, incline, or decline)
- Shoulder/military press
- Pull downs
- Pull ups
All of this however, is only on the condition that you perform the exercises correctly. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of form when dealing with free-weights. Machines may force you to perform the exercise somewhat correctly, but free weights do not. It is always important to do things right, but even more important when performing heavy compound and free-weight lifts. The difference between a correct deadlift and an incorrect deadlift is the difference between one of the most effective exercises you can do and a horrible back injury.
Clark, S., (2006), "Compound vs Isolated Exercises, Making an Effective Training Program", accessed December 2013, http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/sclark55.htm
Deen J.C., Ogburn D., (2013) "The Most Effective Way To Build Muscle" http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/the_most_effective_way_to_build_muscle
Hatfield FC (2004), Fitness The Complete Guide edition 8.6.6, International Sports Science Association’s Certified Fitness Trainer Program
Mercola (2012), "Squats: 8 Reasons to Do This Misunderstood Exercise", accessed December 2013 from http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2012/05/25/darin-steen-demonstrates-the-perfect-squat.aspx