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Weekly News and Articles from Finish First Sports Performance, Issue #31
October 31, 2008
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Please enjoy another issue packed with evidence-based information about sports performance training and news about current events at Finish First Sports Performance. If you find value in this e-newsletter, please forward this message to your teammates, coaches, or other parents of hard working athletes.

Machines vs. Free Weights: Which is Better?

By Coach J. Hoy, CSCS, USAW, Jump Stretch, Inc. Certified,
Elite Performance Scientist

Last week, a parent and prospective new athlete visited the facility for the first time to gather some information and see what Finish First Sports Performance was really about. After discussing the ins-and-outs of performance training, and explaining how our system works, the father asked why we don’t have weight training machines in our training center. I could tell he was surprised by this fact, and took the moment as an opportunity to teach him why I choose not to use traditional weight training machines for performance enhancement.

I am going to provide a simplified version of my lecture (really, it wasn’t that long!). I know this issue has been debated since the first machines were introduced by Author Jones of Nautilus in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, it was around that time that performance training in America took a turn in the wrong direction.

Instead of focusing on understanding movement sciences (motion and motor patterns), the U.S. focused on cardiovascular components (aerobic training). Many people have been tested that performed very high with regards to cardiovascular components yet lacked the necessary motor skills to perform the most basic athletic movements. In other words, many people could run forever, but would trip over their own feet if they were asked to run, change direction, block another player, and then catch a ball—all of which requires multiple motor skills and programming specific to sports.

While the U.S. was developing ‘distance runners,” the Eastern Bloc countries (former Soviet Union, etc.) were studying and creating better athletes. That is why so much of our modern sports performance sciences are coming from studies done by the Eastern Bloc countries over the last 30-40 years! (side note: at Finish First Sports Performance, we use many different training methods, rooted in movement sciences from the Eastern Bloc research).

Ok, back to machines vs. free weights. During the time that cardiovascular training became the main focus for training in America, bodybuilding began to take center stage as a sport and training method for ultimate performance. While bodybuilding is a sport in itself, its training methods are not optimal for athletes of other sports. In America, unfortunately, much of our ‘performance science’ studies were done on cardiovascular training or bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding requires a muscle to be trained in isolation. When is a muscle used in isolation in sport? I honestly cannot think of a sport movement that utilizes only one muscle, without any involvement of additional muscles for stabilization, rotation, balance, etc. So, why would you train in isolation? You shouldn’t.

First, let me say that most machines are designed to train an isolated muscle around a fixed joint in a specific range of motion. These machines are designed for hypertrophy (muscle size). This is very important for bodybuilding, but not necessarily for sport performance (some athletes need hypertrophy and this can be addressed with free weights).

Secondly, training muscles in isolation may actually impede the motor programming needed for optimal sports performance. Remember, the body adapts to the specific demands applied to it. Repeatedly asking the body to use muscles in isolation causes inefficient motor patterns (muscles firing), inhibiting sports movements that require many muscles to work together.

Also, training with machines does not mimic sports movements. Understand that the most sport specific movements that can be done are not done in the weight-room; they are done in the competitive arena. Playing a sport is the most sport specific exercise you can perform. However, playing your sport does not address the many components of functional movements, balance, strength, power, speed, etc. So, it is important to address these through training. Training can be general in the beginning, but must progress to specific movements for a greater carryover into sports related skills. It should also be mentioned that these specific movements need to be carefully selected so that they do not mimic the sports skill too closely, so that any technical differences do not hinder performance.

Most machines are used while you are sitting down, with no demand for balance or any other functional training aspect. Performing an exercise while seated requires much less dynamic vision and balance. Sports require high levels of dynamic vision training and functional training. Using free weights allows you to address balance, dynamic vision training, and functional training, as well as any additional issues that might need to be addressed.

Typically, one machine has one function—a chest press machine is designed only for the chest press. Free weights are more versatile and more specific to performance training. However, because machines are so effective at isolating a muscle, they are very important for specific rehabilitation or to address specific injury issues. I think that is where they are the most relevant for athletes—in the rehab setting (for initial rehab, then specific reconditioning must be used to properly prepare the athlete for re-entry into the competitive arena).

It is our goal at Finish First Sports Performance to prepare our athletes to perform their best when it matters the most. Most often, this requires a comprehensive training program that covers all aspect of training, specific to the function of each athlete’s sport. We choose to use free weights and other accessory training apparatus to achieve the desired results with our athletes. Machines that train a muscle in isolation have no place in our training facility, and should have no place in yours (with the exception of rehabilitation or specific issues). If you have any questions about this article, please contact me at

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Thanks again for subscribing to this free e-newsletter. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. I look forward to your feedback as I continue to research to bring you the most current scientific training information available.

Should you have any specific article requests or questions, email me at Please visit for detailed sports performance training information and programs offered exclusively by Finish First Sports Performance.

Yours In Training,

Coach Jeremy S. Hoy, CSCS, USAW, Jump Stretch, Inc. Certified,
Elite Performance Scientist

Finish First Sports Performance

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