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Bodyweight Exercise vs. Free Weights vs. Machines

By Tamir Katz of TBK Fitness

In this article, I am going to be discussing the merits and drawbacks of exercising with free weights, including barbells, dumbbells, sandbags, or other weighted objects, bodyweight exercises, which include calisthenics and gymnastics, and machines, which include both weight machines and aerobic machines such as treadmills and step machines. Let's start off with what you hope to achieve from your workouts, and we'll correlate your goals with what kind of workouts you should be doing.

Unfortunately, the trend nowadays at most gyms is towards "cosmetic" workouts, where a trainee will simply try to acquire blown up biceps and a large chest without caring about the development of the legs, back, neck, as well as the functionality of his body. By functionality, I mean the ability to use the body for purposes other than the means by which it acquired the strength or stamina. For example, our trainee back there who pumps up his arms on machines, probably cannot do a heck of a lot more with his body now than before he started working out, other than push more weights on the arm machine. Thus his workouts are not functional. On the other hand, a trainee who lifts and carries heavy sandbags has functional strength which he can use when lifting, carrying, or moving other heavy things such as furniture, heavy luggage, boxes, etc.

This is the primary reason machines are pretty useless. They have no crossover benefit to real life situations. No balance is required when pushing a handle on a machine, and so all of the accessory muscles, tendons, and ligaments that come into play in real life situations are not being worked. Furthermore, machines tend to isolate muscle groups. A gym will typically have a circuit of machines set up where one works the chest, one the quadriceps, one the shoulders, one the triceps, and so on and so forth. However, in virtually no real life situations do muscles work in isolation. Whether one is throwing a ball, punching someone, kicking, pushing, jumping, or running, many muscles are working together.

Machine based workouts also emphasize going slowly "to take all of the momentum out of the lift." Once again, in virtually no real life situations do we move slowly. Did Muhammad Ali throw slow punches? Did Nolan Ryan throw the fastball as slow as he could? Did Michael Jordan slowly make his way to the basket to dunk? Of course not. Speed is essential in most activities. You don't want to be teaching your muscles to work slowly.

The aerobic based machines are also usually harmful. Step machines, ski machines, and exercise bicycles all involve repeating the same motion along the same track thousands of times, which can lead to overuse injuries involving the knees, hips, feet, and back. It is preferential to sprint outside on hills or grass, where every step is slightly different, and by virtue of the intensity of the workout, one cannot continue it for long periods of time due to fatigue.

So, are there any benefits to using machines? Yes - they do have limited uses. For example, when rehabilitating an injury where you cannot support a barbell, dumbbells, or your own bodyweight, a machine might be used. Similarly, an injured leg might be rehabilitated on an exercise bicycle. The only non-injury related use for machines I can think of is running sprints on a treadmill. Again, sprinting outside is better, since on a machine your acceleration into the sprint is limited by how fast the machine adjusts the speed, but for those that absolutely cannot get outside, the treadmill is an acceptable alternative.

Let's move on to the bodyweight vs. free weights debate. Bodyweight exercises are superior for wrestling and other grappling and martial arts, gymnastics, and for those who want to join the armed forces. Weight training is superior for brute strength, football, lifting competitions, and many of the sports. However, when training for other sports, free weights should be combined with sprints, some bodyweight exercises, as well as sport specific drills.

Why are bodyweight exercises superior for grappling, combat, and gymnastics? For several reasons. First of all, in each of those activities one needs the ability to use a muscle group over and over again at high levels - that is, muscular endurance, which is developed very well by bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc. Second, each of those events requires body awareness.

I define body awareness literally as being aware of every part of your body at any given point in time in any given position. The problem with weight lifting exercises, even the good ones like snatches, cleans, jerks, or bent pressing, is that you use "weight awareness" - that is, you have to be aware of where the weight is at all times more than where your body is. As long as the weight is lifted and caught in the correct position(s), the body will naturally follow suit (or else the lift fails).

However, bodyweight exercises take the weights out of the equation. To successfully do such challenging exercises as handstand push-ups, one-legged squats, headstands, and bridges, you have to be focusing on every part of your body. That is why they are so good for wrestling, and other combat sports where your body is in many different positions during a match, and to be able to successfully recover and counter attack, you must have full awareness of where each part of your body is at all times. Similarly, in gymnastics, where you flip and end up in many different positions, body awareness is crucial.

Not all bodyweight exercises develop body awareness equally. Some of the ones I mentioned above such as handstand push-ups and bridging do a very good job, but regular push-ups on the other hand develop it to a lesser extent. The more a bodyweight exercise requires agility and balance, the more body awareness it develops.

Bodyweight exercises are also good for people always on the road, those without money to purchase weights, and those with very little time, as a set of push-ups or squats can be squeezed in at odd moments during the day.

So what are weights good for? Many things! Nothing packs muscle on a skinny frame like heavy, intense lifting. Nothing is better for increasing brute strength and power - the kind used to lift a heavy box, open a jar that's stuck, tackle a 210 pound running back running at the speed of light, smash a homerun over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, or throw the discus record distances. However, you should choose useful exercises that work many muscles at the same time, exercises such as cleans, snatches, jerks, presses, squats, and deadlifts, using barbells, dumbbells, or sandbags.

Let's sum it all up. Use machines very sparingly. They have poor crossover to real life activities. Use a predominantly bodyweight exercise regimen when training for such activities as wrestling and combat sports in general, gymnastics, diving, acrobatics, and the military, where you have to use muscles again and again and need highly developed body awareness, or simply if you're always on the road or have very little time. Use a predominantly free weight exercise regimen for most other sports and activities, but include some bodyweight exercises, and no matter what kind of activity you're engaged in, sprinting in all its forms will enhance your athleticism and fitness.

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