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As a fitness professional, I often get asked what is best for XYZ or which piece of equipment is better, the A or the B? And my answer is always the same, no matter what fills in those blanks: it depends on your goals. No type of equipment is better or worse than the next, it just serves a specific purpose and knowing the specific purpose of each can help you avoid wasting your precious time and energy, and then becoming frustrated when you dont see the results you want.
• Isolation machines
What are they: The twisted pieces of metal with pads that take up the most room. They only work one muscle group at a time, making it easy to hop from one to the next, hitting all your major muscle groups for a well rounded full body strength workout. They provide resistance in once direction and then you work against gravity to slowly return to starting position.
When you should use them: Machines allow you to build balanced strength and size by focusing on one muscle group while eliminating all others by supporting your body. These machines force you to stay in proper form in order to get the machine to work, working much the opposite of free weights, where maintaining proper form is all on you. Because of this, they are great for experienced exercisers to safely lift a ton of weight, and easy for beginners to use to learn proper form and muscle recruitment before moving on to more complicated compound joint movements.
• Free weights
What are they: Dumbbells, barbells, or your own body weight. Free weights allow you to work freely through space without any restrictions, recruiting more muscle groups to keep you in proper form and complete the movement. You can do both compound or isolation movements using free weights, although, by nature, you will recruit a few different muscles groups as you will need to stabilize your body as you exercise.
When you should use them: When you want versatility and to build full body strength. Because of the amount of coordination needed and the increased risk of injury, free weights are for the intermediate to advanced exerciser who fully understands proper form.
• Cable Machines
What are they: A system of weights and pulleys that provide resistance in both directions. They require you to perform the exercise through the correct range of motion with minimal support, so you activate more of your stabilizing muscles for a more overall body workout.