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Machine Training vs. Free Weight Training.. Train to Move!

Dana Cavalea CSCS

Many people that I come across always ask me about this so called "debate" on machine training vs. free weight training, which one is better? In my mind there really is no reason for debate. If you carefully analyze sport, and compare and contrast it to the training methods in which you are using, you will be able to answer your own questions to this non-debatable subject.

Whenever I get the opportunity to speak with Coaches and Athletes alike, I always encourage them to become analyzers, not just programmed robots that listen to everything their Coach or a so-called Professional tells them to do.

So let's stop for a moment and think logically about sport. As far as I know, a majority of sports are played in the upright standing position, yet, when we walk around a weight room, most of our training is done either seated of laying down.

Are we getting it yet? The whole idea behind training is #1 to reduce the risk of injury, and #2 to increase performance on the field. If we are spending so much time on our butt and back, how are we possibly going to maximize our performance on the field if we are not preparing our body to maintain the positions it will so frequently be placed in on the field. Going through this analysis of sport, we are able to see that if an athlete is spending excessive time on his back or on the ground, he definitely is limiting his production and quality of play during competition.

The point I am trying to make here is that training needs to have a direct carryover to the sport we play. If your sport is played standing, then your training should be also.

For those of you that have read some of my previous articles, you will see that I place a huge emphasis on creating stability throughout the body. This increased level of overall stability will allow the body maximize force transfer, limit unnecessary motion, and therefore provide us with a decreased risk of injury and overall greater power output. If we are able to increase power output, that will translate into greater throwing velocity, bodily economy, and increased bat speed.

So how does stability tie into the machine vs. free weights debate? Machines allow us to stabilize our spine by using a pad on our back, or having our shoulders locked into a machine to provide this "false stability."

Stability is achieved when the spinal column is in a position that creates freedom to move, but this movement is restricted/controlled by the deep abdominal muscles and core stabilizers preventing movement of the column itself, but creates a strong base for the appendages to move. This is the whole idea behind Core Training, which teaches us to stabilize the spinal column to again aid in force transfer and decrease injury risk.

If we are using machines, we are able to strengthen a muscle most likely in isolation, and are limiting the amount of stabilizer activity that would be necessary if we were using free weights. As an example, a leg press requires very little stabilization because the back pad works to lock in our spinal column, whereas during a standing squat, we are forced to activate our core musculature or else our upper body will collapse. With the free weight exercises we are getting more "bang for the buck" and strengthening the body in positions it will be placed in on the field.

In regards to this pseudo debate, here are some tips:

  1. Make your training ground based rather than seated
  2. Analyze the movements that take place in your sport then compare your program to these movements and see if you are incorporating these planes of movement in your program
  3. Ask yourself am I challenging my body's ability to balance and move in my program?
  4. MACHINE TRAINING is much EASIER than lifting free weights during ground based activity. This point in itself should make you think WHY? The reason is during ground based activity there is an extremely high neural demand and your body is using more muscle, joint stabilizers, and therefore expending more calories.

In summary, this debate in my mind really doesn't exist because when we analyze overall performance gains in athletes, those that train in a ground based fashion have a much greater carryover in success from the weight room to the field. This is the whole reason we train; to translate weight room success into on-field success. In essence, if you are training in a ground based fashion, you are training your body to MOVE.


Dana Cavalea is a nationally recognized strength and speed consultant specializing in baseball. His website, www.mlstrength.com is a great resource for any athlete, coach, and/parent. Check it his new blog, The Grind and discussion board coming soon.


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