Weight Training Equipment: Free Weights, Machines and Cables

Which is Best?

Weight Training
Weight Training. Paul Kane / Stringer / Getty Images

Weight training equipment falls into three basic categories: free weights, lever machines, and cable pulley machines. You can add a few ancillary pieces like benches, frames, and workstations to complete the picture. Bodyweight exercises and stretch resistance can also be included.

Opinion abounds as to which type of equipment is best and for what outcomes. It is true that you can't train to be an Olympic weightlifter with just lever and pulley machines. Similarly, powerlifters need to train with barbells because that's what they use in competition.

Notwithstanding those somewhat obvious contentions, this does not imply that free weights, like barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells are superior tools for the casual weight training or even serious bodybuilder. You can design a very competent program using all of the above. Let's look at each category.

Free Weights

Free weights are, as the term suggests, anything you can lift that is not attached to an immovable source. You can lift sandbags, barbells or barrels of water or wine. In fact, Strongman competitions utilize many various types of free weights in the competition.

One proposed advantage of free weights is that they do not fix the moving body part in a fixed plane like lever machines do for example. This tends to invoke a wider range of muscles like synergists and helper muscles, which may be a good thing for general muscle building. 

Examples of Free Weights: 

Lever Machines

The original Nautilus brand lever machines devised by Arthur Jones in the early 1970s became a household name in the gym industry, and the brand thrives today. They operate by a series of levers and adjustable resistances across a wide variety of machines and target muscle groups.

Many other brands of similar machines are also commercially available, including for home gyms.

Lever machines do tend to lock in the movement path, but the range of machines provides functional variety.

Examples of Lever Machines:

Cable and Pulley Machines

If you are a gym user, you will know these machines. They are of two types: muscle targeted machines and free cable frames that can be used for a variety of exercises and muscle targets. The cable rowing machine is a good example of a targeted machine. You sit upright on a sliding seat and pull a resisted cable back to work the middle back muscles.

Cable frames usually have two adjustable cable racks at each end with adjustable attachments heights. You can use each cable by itself of you can bring both cable grips together to do chest exercises for example.

Examples of Cable Machines

In Summary 

If you are a bodybuilder, or just train for general fitness and health, then there are different ways in which you can make excellent use of all three equipment classes.