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Look at any classic bodybuilding book or DVD and it will say free weights are superior to cables (and machines) for muscular hypertrophy. Joe Weider and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two famous proponents of this idea. Their claim is that humans have evolved to work against gravity and free weights provide a natural gravitational force, while cables do not. I understand how machines are inferior because they don't work stabilizer muscles, but I don't understand how this logic proves cables are suboptimal.

A) Evolution

Who says humans have evolved to get bigger muscles from working against gravity? If anything, technological advances have made humans work less against gravity over the centuries. We do not toil on the farm like our forefathers. We now have cars, computers, and robots to do heavy lifting for us.

B) Contradiction to overload principle

Isn't the key to hypertrophy to subject the muscles to ever-increasing unusual stress, thereby making them adapt to this new stress? Bodybuilders know that doing the same routine over and over make their muscles become complacent. Since cables provide a force that is unlike the gravity we deal with every waking moment of our lives, then wouldn't cables stress the muscles more than free weights?

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I don't understand the question you're asking in part A. –  user3085 Jul 4 '12 at 14:02
    
@Sancho : it's rhetorical. –  JoJo Jul 6 '12 at 6:28
    
There is one well understood concept regarding strength: you have to lift heavier things to get stronger. All cable machines have a maximum amount that can be lifted. Once you can lift the whole stack of weights, there's no where else to go. Free weights don't have such limitations. You can load a barbell with far more weight than any cable machine is designed with. That reason alone makes free weights superior for building muscle in an absolute sense. There is more room for argument if you can't lift the whole stack, though. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 11 '12 at 16:13
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'll try to stay tight to your "science" and "evidence" clauses, because there's a whole lot of non-science reasons to use free weights. (Just off the top of my head, there's cost, versatility, compactness, and portability.)

This roundtable discussion (PDF), with copious references, is one of my favorite sources for the machines/free-weights science. Among the points made therein:

  • (Wathen) "There is some evidence that more carryover is likely with free weights than machines when training and testing in both modes." (page 21)
  • (Carpinelli) "...there were no significant differences (P < 0.05) between the [free-weights-trained or machine-trained] groups for any of the [strength] variables. It appeared that vertical jumping ability was improved to a greater extent by training with free-weights and the Universal apparatus than by training with the Nautilus device. However, the differences are relatively small, and in view of the similarity of the strength gains, the practical application of the finding is unclear” (ibid).
  • (Carpinelli) "The absence of any supporting evidence suggests that when used properly, free weights and machines produce similar results in a healthy, athletic population." (ibid) While that's true, I would argue that the very act of choosing machines produces a radically different and markedly inferior program due to choice of exercises, but I can't prove it.
  • (Wathen) "Augustsson et al. (3) indicated that free-weight squat training has more impact on vertical jump performance than does a program of isokinetic knee extension and hip adduction. There are few studies in this area, and most are equivocal, but more evidence points to specificity of muscle action type and movement pattern favoring dynamic freeweight movements that closely approximate the sport movement (5,7, 15). After all, most sports performance is dynamic, multijoint, multiplanar, requires balance, and deals with both eccentric and concentric actions (3, 10). Sounds like free weights." This is a great passage.
  • (Stone) The same conclusion, stated more succinctly: "The major contributing factor to the superiority of free weights compared with machines is the ability of free weights to mimic and overload most athletic (and daily task) movements. Because of this aspect, there can be a greater transfer of training effect."

All in all, it is a balanced discussion with tons of studies to curl up and read.

As to your specific questions, I do not see how the fact that most middle-class Westerners sit a lot and are weak has anything to do with how we evolved. I would venture to say that we know with fair certainty that our ancestors mostly got strong by lifting things, carrying things, and running. I fail to see the relevance of this point to whether machines are empirically superior to free weights, except to point you to the inherent joy of training and playing outside. (Erwan le Corre has more to say on this topic.)

To address your point about cables and machines being different enough to produce different stresses: most machines, though less so with cables, dramatically reduce the number of muscles involved in a motion. They are designed to isolate muscles instead of allow the body the act as a whole. So, yes, the leg curl machine might provide a different stressor to more strongly incite growth in the hamstring, but as noted in the references above, that stressor is highly specific and has less carryover to everyday life and sport.

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(Your question asks for scientific evidence, so I can dig up references for the points I make, if you would like.)

An example

Consider the back squat. For this exercise to be done properly, you need to be able to stand up from a squatted position with barbell on your posterior deltoids. If this is done with proper form, the barbell will follow a perfectly vertical path that keeps it in place directly above your midfoot.

Here are the things about just this one exercise (deadlifts, too) that I don't think can be replicated in a cable exercise:

  • a whole-body hormonal response that can't be triggered by smaller, single joint exercises, or exercises using a smaller number of smaller muscles
  • an ability to progressively increase the weight on the bar without limit (what happens when you reach the maximum capacity of your cable machine?)
  • gravity always pulls the bar straight downward, to allow you to stand up with proper form (a cable system would have to be pretty complicated to always pull straight down, even in the case where you shifted forward or backward slightly)

The overload principle

Barbells do give an overload that is unlike the gravity you experience in everyday life. You don't ever stand up with 250 lbs on your back in everyday life, but can do this with a barbell, thus providing the unusual stress necessary to stimulate muscle growth. And when your body gets used to 250 (probably after that one workout), do it with 255.

From an expert

From Mark Rippetoe (emphasis mine):

There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.

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It's worth pointing out that Figure 8-2 in Rippetoe's own book suggests that the deadlift actually is better than the back squat for exactly that. Still a barbell exercise, so for the purposes of the question it's moot, but I find that discrepancy worth investigating. –  Robin Ashe Jul 4 '12 at 20:18
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Maybe the deadlift is "too" good, in that you can't do it every workout like the squat. –  user3085 Jul 4 '12 at 21:06
    
That's a good point, particularly with a 3x/week workout schedule. Stronglifts 5x5 suggests something similar, with the squat as the core exercise and the deadlift every 2nd exercise. –  Robin Ashe Jul 4 '12 at 21:56
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I don't think you'll find any. Mike Mentzer has talked about this - free weights, machines, cables; they all have their pros and cons. Quite clearly using all of them appropriately is superior to using only one of them. It's possible (although not likely) that a study might show that exclusively using cables is inferior to exclusively using free weights, but that scenario is pretty contrived anyway, as the only reason you'd exclusively use one or the other is due to the unavailability of any other options, in which case superiority or inferiority is a moot point.

A big problem you'd also run into with any such hypothetical study that may show it is how they're comparing both types of equipment. Are they looking at what cables are superior for, or are they looking at what free weights are superior for? That initial bias in testing methodology would affect the results. There's also a question of how the pulleys affect the weights - while you might be lifting the same weight with a barbell as the selectorised plates, the pulleys might make the load effectively lighter on your muscles therefore putting them under less stress to adapt.

Now if we skip aside from looking for a scientific study, and consider the reasoning - exersices like the back squat and the deadlift engage every muscle in your body, and more muscle engagement promotes more testosterone production which is key for building mass. I see no reason though why a properly designed cable system wouldn't allow for performing a deadlift - the one in my gym doesn't allow for it as my face would run into the equipment to get into a deadlift position, but I can imagine a machine that would allow it. That would be a further confounding variable. Free weights are pretty consistent, one barbell is the same as another barbell, regardless of manufacturer. Weight machines differ from make to make and model to model. That of course makes it much more difficult to find good instruction on machine use compared to free weights.

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Agreed. I would surprised to see a cable system that can mimic the effect of power cleaning 200 lbs. The barbell is the only way to do these types of exercises, I believe. –  user3085 Jul 4 '12 at 13:36
    
It would have to be a study on the carryover of one form of exercise to another. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 11 '12 at 16:16
    
"Quite clearly using all of them [free weights, machines, cables -ed.] appropriately is superior to using only one of them." Uh, what? A single example invalidates this, so here's two: an Olympic lifter has no need for cables unless she has a specific deficiency or injury, and a jiujitsiero looking for a minimal strength program to supplement his sport has no need (that I see) for machines. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 11 '12 at 16:27
    
Unless the Olympic lifter in question is consistently winning gold medals at every competition, it might be time to supplement the exercises. Some will argue that there's no need to do anything other than the two lifts, but Rippetoe has made a good argument that powerlifting lifts would be a great addition. Of primary importance for a BJJ player is grip strength, while that can be done with free weights, it's a lot easier to train solo with a machine. –  Robin Ashe Jul 11 '12 at 18:38
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Here's a good article on Bodybuilding.com - http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/keats1.htm

I think your question answers itself (which makes it a great question). If you separate the muscle building from other physical improvements (stabilization, ligament strength, physiological), then there probably is little difference and possibly more benefits to using cable/machines. Cable/machines help focus effort on specific muscles and that focus probably helps them build faster....the overall problem is that a big muscle in itself has little benefit (outside of looking good and if the bicep a way to attract women). If you want a healthy, fit body, you need to develop the entire human structure and mental fortitude at the same time - and yes, I think lifting free weights has physiological benefits over cables/machines...muscle strength, stabilization, bone density, muscle-to-bone (tendon), bone-to-bone (ligament) and cardio build together better with unstable, heavy objects - free weights, sand bags, kettle bells, sledge hammers, etc.

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