Dear Trainer: Which Is Better Dumbbells or Machines?

Shana Verstegen
by Shana Verstegen
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Trainers frequently get asked, “Which is better, dumbbells or machines?” and the answer is not as cut and dry as you may think. Let’s examine a few aspects of each that are worth considering before you make your decision.

EASE OF USE

There is no doubt machines require less training, thought and assistance once mastered. To somebody new to fitness this can be very appealing! The machines are all labeled with photos and instructions and some even have a link to a video demonstration. Once you know your settings, you simply have a seat, select your weight, and off you go.

Dumbbells, on the other hand, take a bit of training to master the coordination and proper movement patterns of some of the more complicated compound exercises. They require more thought and focus as various parts of the body need to move together and stabilize the weight, which isn’t a bad thing and definitely gets easier over time.

STRENGTH

For overall functional strength dumbbells and free weights cannot be beat. More motor units need to fire to move a free weight through space. However, it can be argued that an overall greater force can be applied in a machine set-up due to the fact that the body is already in a stable and, for the most part, safe position.

In short, heavier loads can be placed on specific muscle groups in a single plane of motion with machines, while more muscle fibers and greater overall strength can be gained with the use of dumbbells and free weights.

SAFETY

Upon first look, it would seem machines are safer. There is no fear of weights dropping on a user’s head or feet, and the “proper” range of motion is already built into the machine. If too much weight is selected on a machine, the weight will just fall back down onto the stack, no spotter necessary. Conversely, a machine keeps you in a fixed range of motion, which may not be ideal for all body types. Dumbbells and free weights allow the lifter to move through space as their joints intended, usually in several planes of motion.

TRANSFERABILITY

The definition of functional training is how “functional” (or usable) that particular activity is in relation to a person’s life activities and sports.

Coach Rich Hesketh of DECAMAN Athletics has always had a fondness for dumbbells: “Dumbbells provide versatility to challenge athleticism in multiple planes of movement, instead of being strapped into a machine with limited movement and range of motion. Strength training should be considered in a holistic approach. Weight load must challenge balance, coordination and joint stability to improve integrated movements from the ground up. Dumbbells are the perfect tool to create a challenging and dynamic training program.”

When one masters basic dumbbell exercises they have the world at their hands for exercise opportunities! 

Dumbbells are also a tool that can be found in almost every training facility, from high-level gyms to the smallest hotel workout room. When one masters basic dumbbell exercises they have the world at their hands for exercise opportunities!

THE BOTTOM LINE

So which is better? IDEA World Trainer of the Year and owner of Fitness Quest 10 Todd Durkin hits the nail on the head: “Instead of choosing which one is better, bottom line is that one who is committed to a full-time strength and conditioning program may very well benefit from both machines and free weights.”

About the Author

Shana Verstegen
Shana Verstegen

Shana, a member of the Under Armour Training Team, is a TRX and American Council on exercise master instructor and a six-time world champion lumberjack athlete. She holds a degree in Kinesiology
- Exercise Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a certified personal trainer through ACE, NASM and NFPT. An energetic and personable speaker, she is also the National spokesperson for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

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