Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Safety of Free Weights

The Safety of Free Weights
By Dr Fred Hatfied
In "Free Weights vs. Machines: A Look at Pros and Cons of Each", Elizabeth Quinn makes a case for machines being "safer" then free weights. Says she,
"The most important component in any strength training program is safety. If you are new to strength training or if you are working out alone, variable resistance machines are the best bet. While machines can be a viable option for serious weight training, they are best for novice, senior and recreational athletes."

Later, Ms. Quinn noted,
"However, free weights require the help of a spotter, and result in more injuries than machines. Careful instruction and training is necessary to master the art of free weight lifting. "

Ms. Quinn isn't the only one stating this. It seems to be conventional wisdom that machines are safer. While the debate "free weights vs. machines" has been around for some time (with very few new ideas brought to the table), I'm still forced to ask if machines really are "safer" than free weights.

Explanations of why machines may be safer then free weights fall under 3 patterns of reasoning: 1. Proper form is needed for the use of free weights, 2. Machines are better in isolating certain muscles, and 3. Many free weight exercises require a spotter. Let's look at these explanations and point out the faults in each argument:

Proper Form Is Needed For The Use Of Free Weights. As noted above, Ms. Quinn states, "Careful instruction and training is necessary to master the art of free weight lifting." While I do believe this to be true, it is also true for the use of machines. Many machines are overwhelmingly misused in health clubs. Lat pull down, seated cable rowing and multi-hip machines being the most commonly abused.

Furthermore, many machines often force the user into improper form by virtue of inherent design flaws. It is very difficult to design a machine that will provide proper biomechanics for all individuals. This is a disadvantage that free weights do not have. Furthermore, the fact that machines are far more complex than a dumbbell results in increased opportunity for accidents.

Consider the case of professional wrestler Sean Morley (aka "The Big Valbowski"). WWE writer, Phil Speer (, recently documented a training accident in which Sean Morley was doing seated cable when the machine tipped over on the wrestler, causing him to miss several weeks of work as a result. This may seem like a "freak accident", but chances are if anyone used that particular machine in the same fashion and with the same weight, it will happen again regardless of "proper form".

Machines Are Better In Isolating Certain Muscles. While this is often listed as a positive attribute of free weights, there are some arguments suggesting this makes machines somehow safer to use. The belief is that fewer muscle groups are used and you don't have to balance the weight. This may make the exercise easier - and yes, simple tasks can be safer then complex tasks - but if the overall goal is a stronger, more fit body it is detrimental. If you are using a leg press machine to protect your lower back (even if it is properly designed to do so) the lack of development of the lower back will become your weak link.
Free Weight Exercises Require A Spotter. First, the vast majority of free weight exercises do not require a spotter. Those that do, such as the bench press or squat, do indeed require one. Not having a spotter is potentially dangerous; however it does not make the exercise in itself dangerous. Furthermore, there are equipment companies like SportStrength that manufacture racks and benches with built in spotters.
Is there anything else that makes free weight exercises more dangerous then machines? Elaine Zablocki quoted Chester S. Jones, PhD in WebMD Medical News ( regarding injury rates amongst weight trainers:
"In a review of data from U.S. emergency rooms, he found injuries from weight-training activities and equipment have increased 35% over a 20-year period. The hand was injured most often, followed by the upper trunk, head, lower trunk, and foot."

Note that this includes both free weights and equipment. The point that should be focused on is that the hand, head and foot are among the leading injuries. Perhaps it is possible to strain or tear a muscle or tendon in your hand and foot, but the majority of these injuries were most likely caused by carelessness. Smashing your fingers while putting away free weights or dropping them on your head or foot can happen. However, don't blame the iron dumbbell! Blame the "dumbbell" who lost their concentration! Besides, far more injuries from carelessness occur on machines than free weights.

So, the decision to use free weights or machines will always exist, and many will still debate the relative benefits and safety of each. However, the belief that machines are safer should be carefully re-examined.

Frederick Hatfield II, M.S.

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