This is a bit of a loaded question… functional fitness (which typically includes training with free weights, med balls, and physioballs, the TRX and other tools that ask you to balance and stabilize during the exercise) is all the buzz in our industry, and yes, I believe that doing things that are “functional” is the best way to train, but exactly what does that mean and does that there is no place for machines in your workouts?
First, let’s define functional fitness. To me, functional fitness is anything that helps you function or do the things you do on a daily basis better. So from that standpoint, both machines and free weights are functional; both increase strength, and improving strength gets more important the older you get.
With that said though, there are benefits and drawbacks to both types of training.
Inexpensive, portable, versatile, functional (incorporates balance and stability work into the exercise), movements can mimic how your body moves in real life (multi-planar)
May take practice, must use proper technique to avoid injury
Effective for building strength, allows you to focus your effort on the exercise (strength move) vs. the stabilization and mechanics of the movement, allows you to lift heavier weights and target specific muscle groups, easy to use, safe
Expensive, requires dedicated space, must fit your body, exercises don’t require you to stabilize during the movement
From a personal standpoint, I prefer to train my clients using body weight, balls, bands, and other tools that allow you to move like you do in real life. I think balance and stability are just as important as strength as you get older, and free weights and functional training incorporate these essential fitness components; however, there are times when using machines is beneficial… especially for someone who is coming off of an injury or for someone who has a muscle imbalance that I am trying to correct. Using machines may also be a good starting point for someone who is just getting into fitness and is a little intimidated by the gym. But, the bottom line for me is this… doing anything is better than doing nothing at all so if you prefer machines to free weights, then use machines, but I would also encourage you to include some balance training, some flexibility work and some stability work as well.
Examples of free weight exercise for strengthening the lower body:
Examples of machine exercise for strengthening lower body:
By Tammy Mugavero MS., ATC/L, CSCS, TPI Level 2 Medical Certified