Developing stronger muscles through weight training – also called weight training or resistance training – can increase your muscle mass and bone density, improve your cognitive skills, lower your resting blood pressure, boost your metabolism, and even improve your self-esteem, studies have shown. Resistance training can also help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, improve cardiovascular health, reduce low back pain, and relieve some of the ailments caused by both arthritis and fibromyalgia, according to a report from the National Institutes for Health. And the US Department of Health’s latest physical activity guidelines recommend weight training for everyone.
Specifically, the guidelines said that children and adolescents should do strength-building activities three days a week, while adults should do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week at moderate or higher intensity. Older adults and people with chronic illnesses or disabilities are not off the hook either. The agency recommends that they should incorporate weight training into their weekly activities whenever possible. In fact, weight training is more beneficial for these groups as it can help them function better at home and live independently.
Strength training can, however, be done with your own body weight, free weights, or weight machines. So which way is the best? Experts say it all depends on your goals, fitness level, and exercise preferences.
Important NOTE: Before starting a new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you are in pain.
Use your body weight with calisthenics
Weight training means performing calisthenics such as sit-ups, lunges, squats, push-ups, pull-ups, planks, and step-ups. These exercises are a great option for those who travel frequently, prefer to exercise at home, or don’t have a gym membership. Calisthenics usually also involves balance and functional movement, which will help improve your stability, flexibility, and coordination. And bodyweight exercises are the best for burning calories as they require more full body exercise.
“With bodyweight exercises, you can typically get a quality workout in 11 minutes,” said Garret Seacat, head coach for Absolute Endurance in Manhattan, Kansas. Most people find bodyweight exercises easy, Seacat said, which is another benefit. And people tend to stick with it when compared to other forms of exercise. You are also less likely to injure yourself using a range of calisthenics than using free weights or machines.
Another bonus to bodyweight exercise is that it recruits multiple muscle groups at once, said Nandini Collins, coach manager at digital health company Noom. “They’re also more functional, allowing individuals to mimic real-world movements like unloading food from the car and lifting and holding children.”
However, bodyweight exercises have some drawbacks. You can increase them to a certain extent – for example, from a wall push-up to a knee push-up to a classic push-up – but they only get you as much in building muscle mass as you are, limited by your own body weight . And when you’re trying to isolate and work on a muscle, machines do it more effectively and easily.
Free weights allow you to build muscle mass
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, you need to start with the iron, said Seacat, who is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Muscles enlarge as you overload them with increasing resistance or weight. This overload causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which the body repairs by fusing together, increasing their size and mass.
Free weights and weight machines are perfect for building muscle mass as all you have to do is choose heavier and heavier weights. Free weights have the advantage of being more versatile, cheaper, and smaller than weight machines. This distinction is an important consideration when you have a home gym. “Free weights can be used by anyone, from beginner to advanced,” added Collins. “They also help build in stabilizing muscles that are not so heavily recruited when using machines.”
The main disadvantage of free weights is that it is easier to sustain injuries with this machine than with strength training with your body weight. Injuries most commonly occur when people try to lift heavier weights than their body is ready, or when they use the wrong form while squatting, deadlifting, or overhead lifting, according to Seacat. One solution to this problem is to ask an expert to look at your form or film yourself on your phone.
Weight machines localize muscle groups
Weight machines have many of the same advantages and disadvantages as dumbbells: they help you gain muscle mass more easily than your body weight does, but they increase the risk of injury from choosing a weight that is too heavy. That being said, machines are better than free weights for isolating muscle groups, easier for beginners to master, and lower risk of injury than free weights.
Collins, Seacat, and other experts say all three types of strength training are beneficial, with most people benefiting from a combination of all three. “And remember, doing anything is better than doing nothing,” said Seacat.