Machines or Free-Weights for Lower Body?

Machines or Free-Weights for Lower Body?

Leg training is tough; you either love it or loath it. Regardless, whatever camp you belong to, it is tough to get under the bar week after week and train. These days you are more apt to find someone curling in the squat rack instead of squatting.

There are die-hard squatters and those who are abstinent from the barbell, but you may actually fall into a third camp: relegating your leg training to mostly machines. You may rely on the leg press, squat machine and Smith machine in hopes to grow a bigger lower body.

Related: Leg Workouts for Mass: The 5/10/15 Method

Now, there is nothing innately wrong with throwing in a few machines to round-out a well periodized plan, but too much machinery can stifle progress. If you struggle in adding adding size and overall strength to your legs, You may need to explore other options.

The Advantages of Free Weights over Machines

Box jumpsMachines have their place in training.

  • Isolate lagging body parts
  • Incorporate more volume into programming without a high level of risk
  • Introduce novice trainees to the gym
  • Allowing training to continue around injuries
  • Relatively safe overall with fixed movement patterns & ranges of motion

But if they are the crux of your programming, it severely limits your training and limits your exposure to other movement patterns.

#1. Full Range of Motion

Your hips need to flex and extend for natural human movement. Most machines will fix your hips in a stationary position. This can potentially put excessive strain on your low back by negating your glutes. 

#2. Variation

Free weights allow for more variety with each exercise using different modalities. Take the traditional squat, for example. You have the availability of back squats, front squats, goblet squats, sumo squats, Bulgarian split squats and other forms of single-leg squats just to name a few. Sure, machines will allow for different foot placements but not much else.

#3. Stimulus

Free weights provide the greatest possible hormonal and central nervous response within the body. This creates a cascade of positive benefits from greater muscle protein synthesis, elevated androgenic hormones, and improved body composition. 

#4. Stability

Balance, coordination and overall focus are not real concerns when on the leg press. For a free-weight squat, you need to have the kinesthetic awareness and proprioception to effectively execute the movement. From this, you learn how to move your body through different ranges of motion.


The Movements

Below is a short list of the exercises that can be included in any free weight leg training program. This list is not entirely exhaustive but gives you a general baseline to work from. But don't fool yourself, if you have trouble performing some of these, you may simply need more practice. You may be lacking balance and coordination. Execute the movements with lighter weight to groove technique and avoid injury. 

Squat: "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." - Mark Rippetoe

Bulgarian Split-Squat: One of the best unilateral (single limb) exercises known. It will quickly identify weaknesses, boost core strength and improve balance.

Front Squat: For those who want to remain more upright during a squat and stimulate more quadriceps versus hips and glutes. Also great for taller individuals plus the movement with automatically test your core. 

Goblet Squat: Although the goblet squat prohibits most from moving serious weight, it still challenges your range of motion and balance with less strain on your low back. It is also a great starting point for those new to squatting.

Lunge: The lunge is boast many benefits with balance/coordination, glute development and increasing your mobility by opening up your hips. 

Romanian Deadlift: Mastering the proper hing hinge is key to strong back and keeping injuries minimal in the weight room. 

Stability-Ball Leg Curl: This movement forces your glutes to stabilize for balance while providing an amazing stimulus to your hamstrings. 

Glute Ham Raise: One of the more difficult exercises to master (but that means it works). Try using an upright for support to help progress your strength and ability.
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