When you can choose between two similar exercises (e.g. a machine shoulder press and a barbell shoulder press) the free weight is most often promoted as the better option.
The reasoning goes that free weights activate more stabilising muscles and have a more natural movement pattern.
While this is true, there’s also a downside to free weights: They put more stress on your joints and take longer to recover from.
As a result, free weights will not always be ideal for weak muscle groups that need a lot of volume and frequency to grow.
For example, I’ve found that my triceps need an enormous amount of volume and frequency to grow.
I’m currently doing +100 isolation sets per week on various triceps pushdowns and extensions. (This is in addition to my dips, diamond push ups and shoulder presses).
I experimented with using free weights (dumbbell extensions and skullcrushers) for some of my triceps work, but after just a few weeks I started getting pain in the elbows.
If I kept pushing through this pain it would inevitably turn into pain and later a serious injury.
Using free weights have always better a limiting factor in my triceps growth because I was never able to use enough volume and frequency to grow them.
With cables, I never had this issue.
I can keep doing cable pushdowns and extensions all day long, every single day without any elbow aches or negative impact on recovery.
The conclusion? Be open to include machines and cables in your program. Don’t limit yourself to “functional training” with free weights because all muscle mass has the potential to become functional! (Strength and power is built on the backbone of muscle mass).
Be proud but stay hungry!
Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer