Don’t fear the free weights!


Remember that one of the big lies in the gym was that women should stick to machines and stay away from free weights? Related to that is the lie that one should “start out” on machines and then “graduate” to free weights. Well, here’s why it ain’t so, as well as why free weights are often better for women.

from big to small… or even teeny

Many people are concerned about starting with free weights and assume that machines are safer. Their idea of “free weights” involves scary giant barbells and scarier, even more giant dudes lifting them.

Take a look at the picture to the right. That is a 2.5 lb. plate, the smallest size plate (although you can often buy even lighter ones if you look around). That’s my hand, and I don’t have very big paws.

That’s a free weight.

Not so scary, is it? You can start with just holding that little plate for your resistance. Hell, you can even start with soup cans.

No matter what your strength level and ability, free weights will accommodate it. Simply add weight as you practice and progress.

maximum muscle group work

Machines are designed to move a weight along a prescribed track. In many ways they allow you to cheat by helping you keep the movement along a certain arc. With free weights, more weird little muscles are engaged just to help you keep the thing going the way it should. Thus your overall use of your muscles is optimized, since we know that exercises which use compound muscle groups are the best for overall strength building.

stability and balance

A corollary of maximum muscle use, free weights build stability and balance in a way that machines cannot. Just trying to stand upright with, say, a squat bar across your neck requires your body to learn how not to tip over. The body’s muscles are engaged to a greater extent than they would be if you were standing under a machine which supported the bar for you. And you cannot learn this stability from a machine. In the case of muscles, they learn by doing.

You’ll often hear people talk about “stabilizer muscles” as if there’s a certain group of muscles that’s special. Stabilizer muscles are just muscles that act to provide stability during a movement. So, for example, when you squat, your leg muscles are the prime movers, but other parts are helping to execute the movement: calf and foot muscles are making sure your feet stay planted, torso muscles are making sure you don’t fold up like a wet noodle under the bar, back muscles are pulling shoulder blades back to make the shelf where the bar sits, throat muscles are helping to make that grunting sound like a bulldog burping up a bean burrito, etc. But when you do a standing shoulder press, your leg muscles become stabilizers as they work to hold you upright.


Being a short woman (5’0″), one of the major problems I encounter with a machine is that it simply cannot accommodate me. Shoulder pads hover around my ears, bars lie coyly just out of the reach of my stumpy arms, pulldown bars swing teasingly over my attempts to jump up to reach them (that was before I smartened up and stood on the seat). When I first began to squat, I thought I’d start on the machine, since I was a little timid about approaching the squat cage. To my surprise and annoyance I was too small for the machine, and my arms were not long enough to reach the release handle. I flailed about for a while and realized I’d have to face the dreaded cage. I did it and never looked back.

The moral of the story is this: free weights see no height. I can lift a dumbbell as high as I want or bring it down as low as I want. It doesn’t care. Machines, on the other hand, are designed so that an average person (read: man) can use them. Women are shorter than men on average, so it stands to reason that a lot of us wee women are going to be uncomfortable using many machines that just don’t want to accommodate us no matter how far down we lower the seat. Thus free weights are the ideal choice for doing many exercises comfortably and properly.

natural movement

Machines are pretty stingy with what they allow you to do. As I mentioned, the purpose of a machine is to allow you to move a weight along a pre-defined track. For many people, especially shorter women, the prescribed movement is not natural, and can in fact lead to injury. But free weights not only allow you to do the movement in a way that is natural to you, they also allow for slight variations in the exercise which many machines do not. In addition, many machines, such as the bench press machine, begin the movement when the body is in its most vulnerable position. On a bench press machine, the movement starts with the shoulder joint in a stretched position, its weakest point. In comparison, the bench press with a bar or dumbbells begins the movement at “lockout”, or with straightened arms. The trainee can then choose to use as much or as little range as she likes, depending on her individual needs.

I did some damage myself to my shoulder after I used a seated bench press machine on which the seat was stuck too low. By performing that movement which was neither natural nor comfortable, I managed to injure myself. If I had been using free weights, I would have had a better chance of finding a good groove for my individual biomechanics. The human body tends to move in an arc or curve. Machines tend to move in straight lines or limited ranges. What gives isn’t going to be the steel but your soft squishy flesh.

training for real life

Real life isn’t tidy, or organized, or perfect. Real life movements don’t usually happen while you’re safely strapped into a contraption that immobilizes most of your body, unless you’re biceps curling a 48 oz Super Big Gulp to your lips while seatbelted into a car — and c’mon, why are you doing that anyway? Real life movements are off-balance, asymmetrical, one-handed or one-legged, moving in curves and squiggles, done in funny ways, done unexpectedly, and done all day long. Real life movements involve lifting awkwardly shaped things like babies and couches and sloshy cases of beer and Rottweilers that don’t want to take a bath. Machines aren’t going to help you when it’s time to haul the groceries out of the car with a screaming toddler stuck to your hip, or when you need to move that load of topsoil for your petunia bed and can’t find your wheelbarrow.

machines that don’t suck

Now I’m going to contradict myself. There are some machines that are quite good and enable you to do things you cannot do on free weights, or things that may be somewhat awkward or impractical with free weights.

calf machine

While I do like single-leg calf raises done with a dumbbell in hand, machines offer some good options for calf training. The donkey calf machine is one of the best for training in comfort even when you are lifting a lot of weight. Unlike the standing calf machine, which places all the pressure on your shoulders (and which I swear makes me shorter when I use it), the donkey calf displaces the weight across your hips and lower back. (I suppose you could always substitute a friendly partner sitting on your hips, but that tends to get a little weird.)

Another good machine that is generally very adjustable is the seated calf machine. This one isolates your soleus because your knees are bent in the exercise. Because this one is designed to accommodate people’s lower legs, it usually allows you to go right down to the bottom of the rep, unlike the majority of standing calf machines (which are pretty much useless for anyone under 5’4″). X-tra short grrrls may have the occasional problem with the bar slipping off your knees; just try your best to hold on to it!

Finally, the leg press machine is a handy backup for calf work if no other machine is available. Seated leg presses in particular, where the body is upright in a chair sort of thing, and legs press straight out in front, parallel to the floor, are best for this, because like the donkey calf machine, the weight is distributed across the hips. If you find that you’re uncomfortable moving a lot of weight with both legs, try using only one leg at a time to reduce the load.

assisted chinup machine and lat pulldown machine

Chinups and wide-grip pullups are wonderful basic exercises that work several muscle groups. However women do not generally have the upper-body strength when they begin training to execute these movements. The assisted chin machine uses a counterweight to make it easier. You can counterweight up to 90% of your body weight and lower the amount of counterweight gradually as you become stronger.

As soon as possible, however, you should move to doing negative pullups. This means moving a bench over to a chin bar, and starting in the top position, then slowly lowering yourself down. Clamber up there again, and lower down again. A helpful training partner is also good for heaving you up to the top, or for giving you just enough of a push to help you get up there mostly on your own steam. You can even begin with modified lat pulldowns that more closely simulate the demands of a pullup by doing them standing. Stand facing the pulldown machine, just behind the seat. Grab the handles as you would normally, squat down slightly pushing butt back a little and bending knees a bit, then hold that position while doing pulldowns.

More on that here.

cable stations

These is also known as a high/low pulley machine. It has a weight stack, and pulley with a loop to attach a handle in both a high and low position. Some have the pulley on an adjustable track so that you can set it at various heights. You can do a wide variety of exercises on this, as well as modify familiar exercises for either rehab or novelty.