Calves. Today we’re going to talk about calves. The title of this new Vs article probably has you a bit confused as there is no mention of calves in Free Weights Vs Machines. Add to that fact that there is going to be a calf specific Vs article next week, and you may be wondering what I’m getting at. I’ll get to that later. There’s no sense in making no sense at all and then explaining myself is there? That takes the fun out of it.
As I mentioned last week, I intend to take a two-week detour from the exercises Vs posts that I have written many of lately and instead look at more general practices and put them up against one another. I imagine there will be another detour or two in future as I feel there is still a lot to discuss and I’m enjoying writing these and intend to do several more, if that’s okay with you?
As we have seen in many of the posts to date there are often benefits to both exercises but there is often one that is clearly the overall winner. To put it another way there is rarely a knockout but the scorecards don’t lie and a victor can be decided unanimously in almost every bout. We shall see what today has in store for us as far as a decision goes. I know that the vast majority of you already have your mind made up before I’ve even said a word that is specific to free weights vs machine exercises: free weights win hands down, right? You may be right but let’s look at this a little bit closer before we make any sort of determination.
I’m going to get this out in the open immediately as well: I love machines. I love how they can isolate a muscle and take all of the balance and ‘thinking’ out of training a muscle or groups of muscles depending on the machine used and allow for total focus on the muscle(s) as opposed to the movement. I’m not going to let that cloud my judgment, however, as I too want to do what is best in relation to muscular development and won’t let a simple preference or prejudice stand in the way of my own progress.
Besides there are so many advantages to using free weights that it would be foolish to ignore them. Free weight exercises almost always involve a large portion of the body’s muscle either directly or for support and stabilization. They also are the more explosive exercises that often simulate real world body movements, like the squat or deadlift. The same cannot be said of the leg press in this case. They are also cheaper and almost every lower body free weight exercise is directly applicable to any sport specific training program.
A drawback or two involving free weights is first of all, the intimidation factor. If you can remember walking into the first real gym that you ever attended and entering the free weight area for the very first time, you then can remember the sense of fear that accompanied it. Even today’s modern gyms cannot take the draconian dungeon like quality away from what a well-equipped free weight area will radiate. It’s overwhelming at least to see those bars and plates and really have no idea what to do with them. Using a leg press is so much simpler. You can’t screw that up. Well, unfortunately some do, but that’s another story for another day.
A few more tangible disadvantages involving free weights are that they only provide resistance in the downward direction, they require more time to use as the weights are not as simply adjusted as they are with machines, they often require a spotter, they require much more knowledge of proper exercise mechanics, they are not easily used in circuits as the weight cannot be quickly changed on the fly and lastly and possibly most importantly, free weights are far more likely to cause injury than machines. This last point relates directly to the point about knowledge of proper exercise form. Any free weight exercise that is performed by an individual who knows what he or she is doing can be done, in my opinion, just as safely as any machine exercise. The reality is, however, that many a gym newbie will nearly destroy himself (I’m not being sexist here, it literally always is a guy, or pair of guys as the case may be) in an attempt to be hardcore in the free weights area after reading the latest bodybuilding magazine. That of course is not the fault of the free weights, but it needs to be included in this conversation.
The advantages of machines are that they don’t intimidate the new weight lifter, many are made to cause resistance in both directions and this can be extremely beneficial to building new muscle, changing resistance is fast and therefore things like drop sets and circuits can be completed seamlessly, they rarely cause injury, and they require very little knowledge of proper exercise mechanics.
On the negative side, machines generally train isolated muscles and not muscle groups, although there are exceptions like with the leg press to give one example. Also, they don’t translate well to explosive training which is essential for most athletics and sport specific training, they don’t simulate real world movements and are therefore limited as far as functional training is concerned, and they don’t stimulate complex muscle activation patterns like using free weights will. This is another knock on machines and functional training or sport specific training.
This is all well and good, I’m sure you’re thinking, but all that matters is which one builds more muscle. That answer is simple: free weights will build more muscle and machines will build more targeted muscle. In other words, heavy squats are going to build a lot more muscle than a set of leg extensions. Squats will build your quads, glutes, hamstrings and low back effectively and stimulate many other muscles to support the bar and balance your body throughout the exercise. Leg extensions will work your quads. That’s it. There is an advantage there, however, in that if you are at the stage where you require more quad mass, but not at the expense of getting a squatters butt, then the leg extension will build as much quadriceps muscle as will any quad exercise, provided the intensity is the same. They can arguably build it more effectively as the focus is solely on the muscle you are training and that muscle can be then taken to its maximum as there are no other muscles involved that may fail before the quads do.
It’s at this point I’m going to finally get to what I meant with the calves comment in the introductory paragraph. How many of you can name the top three free weight calf exercises? Or even one? Okay, calf raises with a barbell qualifies, but barely. My point with calves was that every mass monster that is a professional bodybuilder has built an insane amount of calf mass with only the use of machines. Specifically, two machines: the standing and seated calf raise. This makes the point that if you want to build muscle in a specific location you don’t even need variety to do so. You just need machines. No free weights required at all.
The choice is yours. What is it that you are trying to accomplish and at what stage of your lifting life are you? Are you in need of mass in general or are you at the details phase? Either way, you should always include a healthy dose of free weights to keep your body functioning as it should and to maintain the mass that you built with those exercises, but you may choose to emphasize machines somewhat to improve certain areas that require more attention than others. I find this can be effectively accomplished by using machines before training with free weights to both allow for the mind muscle connection to be deepened between the specific muscle that needs improvement as well as the isolated training the specific muscle requires as well as to pre exhaust the muscle to reap the largest reward during the free weight portion of the session. Until next time my friends,