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6 Advantages of Free Weights Over Exercise Machines
By: Jon Gestl

Meet Sarah.

About a year ago, Sarah saw an infomercial about a "multi-unit" workout machine. The announcer called it a "revolutionary" piece of equipment, claiming that people would see results in "just 2-4 weeks". It exercised all major body parts and the female model shown using the machine said it "was safer and more effective than free weights."

Intimidated by gyms her whole life, Sarah knew having her own home gym would be the key to her finally getting into shape. She had heard that machines were safer than free weights. Besides, the machine came with "easy to follow video instructions". The price was steep, but as Sarah imagined changing her body, she got her credit called and grabbed the phone.

On the day of delivery, Sarah was surprised to see it took up twice the space she was told it would, limiting space in her already cramped den. Excited to get started, she popped in the video, and hopped on the machine. Sarah soon found that she, at 5’3", was too small to fit on the machine for some of the exercises. She continued on anyway, trying to ignore the fact that her lower back and knees were starting to hurt a little.

Sarah used her new revolutionary machine exactly three more times. For the last six months, it has been her unofficial clothes hanger.

What happened? Sarah thought she was buying a machine that would be very easy to operate and be a safe alternative to free-weights. Unfortunately, Sarah and many others are misguided by heavily marketed hype by machine developers. When it comes to effectiveness, particularly for the beginning exerciser, free-weights (i.e., dumbbells) rate much higher than expensive machines in terms of:

1. Cost. Three or four sets of dumbbells would have cost Sarah less than 10 times the amount she spent on her machine. As she gets stronger, she would have to buy more, though even a full set would not set her back nearly as much as the machine did.

2. Space. Dumbbells take up far less space than most of the exercise equipment sold on infomercials. You can easily place them in a closet, out of sight under the bed, or in a corner. There are even dumbbells you can adjust (i.e., PowerBlock) that allow you to adjust the poundage on one set, eliminating the need for single-poundage dumbbells.

3. Variety. Most machines are designed as one-dimensional. Even the most extensive multi-unit machines will allow exercisers to perform only a limited number of movements in a restricted range of motion. Free-weights can be used in ranges of motion based on the exerciser, not a machine. Use free weights along with benches or Swiss Balls and you have multitude of exercise options.

4. Suitability. Sarah couldn’t use her "multi-usage" machine for certain exercises because the machine was too big. This is not an uncommon problem. Even though most machines have adjustable seats, arm pads, and lever arms, there are limitations to their range and some may not fit the very small or very large person. However, if you can grab a dumbbell, you can use it.

5. Functionality. Exercising with free-weights increases the likelihood that the effects of the exercise will cross over into real-world situations. Think about it. How often during the day do you lie in a diagonal supine position and push weight up like you would on a machine leg press? Probably never. But how often are you required to do activities that are biomechanically identical to the squat? Sitting, getting in and out of a car, crouching down to pick something up…all the time! Properly using free weights will increase the functionality of an exercise to real-world situations.

6. Safety. It seems counterintuitive to consider free-weights as safer than machines. Most of us have heard (somewhere..) that we could get hurt with dumbbells and that machines were "safer." Maybe just the idea of someone doing a huge bench press lends itself to imagining the likelihood that one might lose control of the same amount of weight if they ever attempted it.

Safety during exercise is more about proper form, technique, concentration and control rather than exercise apparatus. Someone can get hurt on a machine just as easily as with a dumbbell if incorrect form is used. As always, if you don’t know how to do something, find someone (i.e., a reputable trainer) to show you how.

Safety as a result of exercise is a long-term issue. It is not necessary for the body to stabilize itself or the weight during movements on most machines, because the weight apparatus is fixed. Key stabilizer muscles are then never given the chance to get stronger. Free-weights allow the exerciser to utilize core muscles and allow multi-plane movement that forces the exerciser to strengthen stabilizer musculature, which support joints. Over the long-term, free weights are superior to machines for building a stronger, more functional body.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a piece of exercise equipment that you’ll never end up using and won’t suit your needs. A few sets of dumbbells are effective, intelligent alternatives to buying equipment, especially for those setting up their own in-home gym or workout area.

About The Author

Jon Gestl, CSCS, is a personal fitness trainer and instructor in Chicago specializing in in-home and in-office fitness training. He is a United States National Aerobic Champion silver and bronze medalist and world-ranked sportaerobic competitor. He can be contacted through his website at

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The Power of Stretching    - Dave Snape


Your muscles ache from a good stretch. This is quite
normal and is part of the process. Stretching has
seemingly been with us and particularly with athletes
since the beginning of time.

A very key point to good stretching is to hold the
stretch for at least seventeen seconds. This is a
pearl of wisdom gleaned from a ballet teacher a few
years back. She said that any stretch under 17
seconds was just not effective.

The 17 second rule is exceeded in the high intensity
Bikram's yoga where stretches are held for about 30
seconds. Don't forget the high level of heat that is
used in Bikram's to extract that last little bit of
stretch out of your muscles. An interesting twist that
is not necessary to gain benefits from stretching. But,
it can't hurt, right?

So what kind of benefits can you expect from
stretching? That's an easy one. Have you ever seen the
movie, Blood Sport? Did you know that Frank Dux could
truly stretch his body to the extreme. The actor that
played him was quite elastic as well.

Great elasticity is also something you might see in
well trained Spetsnaz (Russian) agents. They often work
out with Russian kettlebells too. They are for superior
strength gains and the ability to withstand ballistic

Why are stretching and flexibility considered important
to these people? Stretching gives one the ability to
have explosive power available at one's fingertips
without the need to warm up. Of course most of us are
not martial artists or agents. But, you'll be happy to
know there are plenty of other benefits.

Let me give you an example. After learning to sit in
the full lotus position for long periods of time, my
ankles became very flexible. One day I was walking
along and my left foot fell into a pothole. This mishap
pushed my ankle sideways to about 90 degrees from it's
normal position.

Amazingly, this didn't even hurt, not one bit. If my
ankle hadn't been so flexible, I may have suffered a
sprained ankle. At the very least, it would have hurt
for days.

Key point: stretching helps you to avoid injuries.
Not only that but if you do have a muscle, tendon or
ligament injury it should heal faster, theoretically

Stretching actually grows the ligaments, tendons and
muscles being stretched. They really grow longer over

Check with your physician before undertaking any type
of exercise, including stretching.

Here is some good instructional material on stretching:

Dave Snape

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