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I've been using a cheap set of cement weights to do benches and curls. This has been working well in concert with trips to the gym every few days to do other exercises. I've maxed out the barbell for benching — the barbell is just about full with 10 of the heaviest (10lb) weights on it. So it is time for an upgrade. In addition to needing larger weights, I'm considering getting a new bench, as the one I've got is more than a little sketchy.

Prices for a decent weight set with bench seem close enough to prices for an entry-level Bowflex that I'm considering the latter. Getting a power cage —enabling me to do squats safely— would up the price to that of a mid-range Bowflex systems. What are the pros and cons of these different styles of equipment? I don't really feel like I need to be able to do a full range of exercises, since I do end up going to the gym a couple times a week on average.

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This question covers a lot of the same ground. The key, in my opinion, is this sentence: "For a beginning bodybuilder, the majority of training should be done with free weights." –  Dave Liepmann Mar 1 '12 at 17:19
    
This answer (to a related but not identical question) would serve well as an answer to your question. –  Dave Liepmann Mar 1 '12 at 17:20
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My personal preference would be to invest in a proper barbell and weights, complete with the power rack and bench. The main reason to choose barbells over Bowflex has to do with versatility and expansion.

  • Bowflex has limited set of resistances, once you max your system out, what's next?
  • Bowflex only supports a limited set of exercises
  • Free weights allow many types of exercises ranging from the big four (squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press) to Olympic lifting and barbell complexes.
  • When you max out the set of free weights you have, you can always buy more.

The only downside to free weights is the amount of space they take up. That can be a real concern for people living in a one bedroom efficiency or densely populated areas.

Now, Bowflex does have some advantages over regular machines, but they also have their disadvantages. First, the resistance is adaptive. The more you make the bows flex, the more resistance they give. While this helps the lockout strength, it doesn't help with getting the bar off the chest--which means there isn't as much carryover to the real lifts. If the bars are tethered by a cable, it's a machine. If the cable is tethered in the middle, it will allow more stabilizer muscles to get involved than if it had guides on either side. However, cables are not as robust as welded metal. Then again, a bowflex is designed for personal use, and not the rigors of people (ab)using the machines in a commercial gym.

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This is the old argument between free weights and machines, here's a good article on it: http://sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/strengthening/a/aa050702a.htm

A very high level summary: machines are good for safe exercises and free weights provide overall quicker results and more realistic exercising. Your choice will depend on what your goals are and how much you want to spend. I always recommend free weights - they provide gains not only in strength, but also in balance and coordination of muscles groups working together.

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I had understood that Bowflex systems were more akin to free weights than typical machines, in that they will work stabilization muscles. –  intuited Mar 1 '12 at 19:37
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@intuited I would bet that cable machines like Bowflex use more stabilizer muscles than, say, a Smith machine, but neither would come close to (for instance) a barbell squat or press. –  Dave Liepmann Mar 14 '12 at 16:32
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