If you're new to the gym then it's perfectly understandable that you've got quite a few questions. The free weights area is full of big, grunting men which can be intimidating while the machines are being hogged by Lycra-clad women doing strange leg movements. But which is best for you? We take a look.
What's the difference between free weights and resistance machines?
There is a significant difference between free weights and resistance machines, both in how they work and the results they will give you. The free weights are the barbells and dumbbells in the gym, while the machines are any resistance-based workout machines such as the leg press, assisted chin up machine, or lat pull down.
There are two types of resistance machine: plate loaded and pin loaded. The plate loaded machines work by the user adding weighted plates to a stack in order to increase the resistance. This can be tricky if it's a busy gym as you may struggle to find the plates that you want and the weight cannot be changed easily. Pin loaded machines have a stack of weights already part of the machine and the user changes the resistance by simply moving a pin up or down. This is better for working on pyramid sets or drop sets when you need to change the weight quickly, and means you don't need to leave the machine in order to change the weight resistance.
The primary difference between free weights and machines is that machines are fixed in place and only move in certain directions whereas free weights can be moved in any way the user chooses. Free weights force you to use more stabiliser muscles in order to control the weight, whereas resistance machines can help you with the move by keeping you in place.
Do free weights or machines build muscle faster?
In general, free weights activate more muscles than machines and therefore are better for building muscle in the long-run. However, towards the end of your session when your muscles are tired and your form is starting to suffer, machines are safer and can help you to continue training safely. Not only this, machines can help you to train weaker muscles more safely and help them to get as strong as your dominant areas. For example, a squat is a free weight exercise. However, if you are quad-dominant, your hamstrings will start to lag behind. Therefore, you could use the hamstring curl machine after doing your squat sets in order to target your hamstrings separately.
The best way to build muscle is to use free weights for most of your workout and then use the machines for accessory exercises. As an example, on leg day you will want to focus most of your efforts on the squat. You will then want to do lunges with a barbell or dumbbells. Then, you could target weaker areas with the hamstring curl machine or work on your weaker leg by doing single leg exercises on the leg press.
Are machines safer than free weights?
In a lot of ways, yes machines are safer than free weights. Dumbbells and barbells can easily be dropped and if it happens to drop on your hand, your foot, or head, there could be serious injuries that ensue as a result. If you use a resistance machine exactly as prescribed, you should not get injured by the mechanics, although you could still pull a muscle or sustain a sports injury due to not warming up properly or lifting a weight that's too heavy for you.
Free weights require a lot more control than machines and if you try to lift a free weight that's too heavy - especially if it's going above your head - this can be pretty dangerous. If you're new to lifting weights, you should always have a member of the gym staff show you how to do the exercise properly and with good form. Nearly all gyms will offer an induction to new members which consists of a trainer or fitness instructor taking you around the gym and showing you how all the machines work and which muscle groups they are used for.
If you do want to lift a weight that you haven't lifted before or want to go heavy, you should employ the help of a spotter. A spotter is someone who stands over you as you lift the weight and follows your movement. They are there to catch the weight if you start to drop it and to help you finish the move if you cannot. For example, a spotter on the bench press will stand behind the bench and hover their hands under the bar. If the person lifting the weight starts to drop it on their chest, the spotter can lift it back to safety. A bad spotter is someone who assists with the lift while a good spotter is someone who doesn't touch the weight unless absolutely necessary. The spotter needs to be strong enough to rescue you if and when needed and they need to pay full attention while the lift is in progress as your safety is in their hands.
For the squat, the spotter stands behind the person doing the squat and squats with them. They hold their hands under the squatter's armpits to assist them to the top of the movement if needed. A good spotter should not touch the athlete unless absolutely necessary.
Free weights vs machines: pros and cons
Both free weights and resistance machines have their place in a well structure workout programme. Some are better than others and some will suit your needs more than others. Here are the pros and cons of free weights vs resistance machines.
Free Weights Resistance Machines Pro - They will give you a well rounded workout and work multiple muscles at a time, including stabiliser muscles Pro - They are safer than free weights Con - You may need a spotter which means you need to find someone willing to help you Con - They do not build muscle as fast
Swimming, cycling, and running will inevitably take up most of your time as a triathlete, but hitting the gym and doing strength training is just as important. We chat with two professional triathletes to get the low down on how they strength train to improve their performance and get the most out of their training.
Matt Leeman - professional triathlete
Matt doesn't do strength training in the typical sense. Instead of hitting the gym and lifting weights, he uses natural factors like hills to help him improve his strength and increase his muscular endurance.
Triathlete strength training
Strength training is a big component of any sport, the common definition of strength is "the ability to exert a force against a resistance". Each sport has different demands and hence requires different classifications of strength, triathlon predominantly requires strength endurance - the ability to express force many times over.
Although I personally do not lift weights, which are commonly associated with strength training, I do triathlon-specific strength training, adapting the training of the disciplines to a strength based way of training.
There are swim specific tools that can be utilised to enhance swimming strength, the main ones I use are the pull buoy, hand paddles, and band. The muscles used in swimming are predominantly the lats (side of the back) and triceps. The pull buoy enables swimming with less kicking to maintain the body position so that the upper body can be worked more. The hand paddles create a larger surface area to increase the resistance of a stroke. The band is used to take leg kicking out of the equation and rather get propulsion from the overall movement of the body and core muscles.
The majority of the time in a triathlon is spent on the bike so having good bike strength is essential for putting together a good race, both directly, making you ride faster, and indirectly, the less the bike takes out of you, the more you’ll have left for the run. The two things that can be utilised for bike strength are the bike's gears and hills.
By doing specific intervals ‘over-gearing’ i.e. using a bigger gear than you would usually use to train your leg muscles to produce a greater force so that when we are racing we are working at a lower percentage of our overall capacity. Hills obviously give a great stimulus for developing strength, ensuring you ride on different terrain is important for developing a well rounded strong athlete.
The main ways in which I train my running strength is using hills and mixed surface terrain. I will often do a specific hill repeat session where one specific hill is targeted and run up multiple times. The beauty of hills is that it prevents you from over-striding and promotes glute engagement, which improves our ability to utilise the bigger muscles in the legs such as glutes and quads that handle fatigue better than the smaller muscles of the leg, which is very important in an endurance sport.
Claire Steels - World Champion duathlete
Claire tells us about her three favourite strength training exercises and why they are well suited to an endurance athlete.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This exercise is great for running and cycling power but also glute, hip and core stability. Unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are fantastic for developing the individual leg strength required for sports such as running and cycling, where each leg is required to produce power independently.
TRX Mountain Climbers
This exercise requires core stability and control whilst moving each leg independently. This replicates the physiological control that is required in a duathlon as a strong core is essential for efficient running and cycling.
This is a fantastic exercise for developing power through the posterior chain along the back of the body. It challenges the strength of the whole body but primarily the glutes and hamstrings. It is also a fantastic exercise for testing the cardiovascular system while also trying to produce power making it yet another great exercise for duathletes.
Are you a keen gym-goer? Feel like you know the difference between an RDL and an SLDL but still not seeing results? Make sure you're not making any of these mistakes.
1. Copying what other people are doing
This includes copying what you see on Instagram/YouTube. People at the gym can be known to perform all sorts of crazy and dangerous exercises, or just perform exercises with terrible form. Don't develop bad habits by copying others as they could be making a lot of mistakes and you'll end up making them too.
Do your research properly and speak to a professional if you're not sure. Always get a second opinion and make sure you separate fact from fiction.
2. Going too fast
Seeing results at the gym is all about time under tension. If you perform your reps too fast, you won't achieve maximum return on your efforts and you could exhaust yourself. Not only this, if you go too fast you are more likely to be doing the exercise with bad form.
Take your time and always control the movement as much as possible. Special reps such as pause reps and timed reps can be excellent for getting more out of the exercise. Slow it down and focus on technique.
3. Doing cardio first
There is an ever-lasting debate surrounding the order in which you should do cardio and weight training. Some people argue that doing cardio first will kick-start your body's fat-burning system and that you'll burn more fat during your session. However, the bottom line is that if you spend half an hour sprinting on a treadmill at the start of your session, it will tire you out. As a result, your form and technique on the free weights will suffer hugely and you could end up getting injured.
Never do cardio before lifting weights. Do the big compound lifts such as squat, deadlift, and bench press at the beginning of your session when you are at your freshest and then move on to the accessory exercises. This is the best order in which to train. If you do want to do cardio, save it until the end of the session.
4. Texting between sets
Your rest periods are just as important as the time you spend actually lifting the weights. Time your rest so that you're not resting too long, and don't get distracted in between sets by texting!
The amount of rest you need between sets depends on how many reps you're doing and how heavy you're lifting. If you're lifting heavy and performing low reps (1-3), you need up to 5 minutes of rest between each set. However, if you're doing hypertrophy and therefore doing fairly light weights at 8-12 reps, you only need 30-60 seconds rest between each set. This time will go quickly! Make sure to time your rest and don't rest too long.
5. Spending half your session chatting
For some people, going to the gym is one of the only times they get to socialise outside of work and as such can be a great stress-reliever and social activity. However, if you are serious about seeing results and are getting frustrated about why you're not progressing, it could be because you're spending so long chatting.
Try to avoid getting distracted during your session by planning it out in advance and knowing exactly what exercises you should be doing, how many reps, what weight etc. If people do want to chat to you, keep it brief and remind them that you need to do your next set.
6. Increasing the weight before you're ready
It may seem like the girl in the corner is watching you and judging how heavy you can lift, but she's really not. You will get a lot more respect for doing the exercises with perfect form than you will for lifting too heavy and not being able to do it properly.
If you can't squat below parallel, you need to go back to a lighter weight and work on your form before you increase the weight. No one likes a half rep! Have patience and remember that this is about you, not what anyone else thinks of you.
7. Not making the most of the gym staff's knowledge
Every gym will have fitness instructors and personal trainers that are brimming with knowledge and just waiting for someone who they can inspire. Most PTs will offer a free taster session so make the most of this and ask them lots of questions. The gym can seem like a daunting place at times, but don't be afraid to speak to the staff, they are there to help.
8. Making excuses
If you can't squat deep because you have 'bad knees', don't squat at all. There are lots of other leg exercises out there that you can do safely and will get you better results. If you find yourself making excuses, you are doing something wrong.
As a swimmer, your arm strength is paramount to your performance. Try this arm strength training session by our friends at Swimovate to really see results.