Kent Probst, BS, MEd
Kent Probst is the owner of Long Healthy Life Blog
Cables vs Free Weights: An Introduction
Which wins out: Cables vs. free weights? It’s a common question with no quick answer. The answer depends on a number of factors, such as your goals, functional ability, and fitness level.
When it comes to cables vs free weights, people can use them for a number of reasons, ranging from improving sports performance to slowing the aging process.
Free weights typically consist of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls. Cables are comprised of a steel frame and weight stack, which sometimes has a seat or platform.
This can be further broken down into free-form exercise and fixed-form exercise.
Free-form exercises allow movement in more than one plane, whereas fixed-form exercises allow movement in only one plane.
Each modality has strengths and weaknesses that should be considered when determining which one to use.
Cables vs Free Weights: Pros and Cons
- Ease of use – Cable machines usually have a picture with instructions on how to use the equipment.
- Time effective – There’s less time required to set up a cable exercise.
- Safety – Biomechanics are often predetermined with cables, preventing bad form.
- Good for rehab – Because cable machines restrict the range of motion, therapists can better target a recovering muscle or joint safely.
- Lack of versatility – Cable machines often limit the way the equipment can be used.
- Less functional – Equipment that requires you to conform to it often doesn’t allow transfer of learning to your activities of daily living.
- More expensive – It’s more costly to buy cable equipment with weight stacks than free weights.
- Limited weight range – The user is limited by how much weight is on the stack.
2. Free Weights
- Versatility – Free weights allow a virtually unlimited number of options for how they can be used.
- Improve balance – Barbells and dumbbells require stability and may help your balance in your activities of daily living.
- Improve function – Free weights allow you to tailor the exercise to your needs, allowing transfer of learning, improving your functional activities.
- Improved coordination – A free weight workout can be tailored to mimicking a sport that requires coordination.
- More difficult to use – Free weights have a greater learning curve regarding biomechanics.
- More risk of injury – Inexperienced people may increase the risk of injury if they’re not educated in correct biomechanics.
- May require assistance – Some free weight exercises, such as barbell bench press, may require a spotter for safety when using heavy weights.
- Lack of continual resistance – Whereas a cable machine maintains tension throughout the range of motion, the resistance of gravity is often eliminated with free weights.
Determining the Right Workout
When designing your workout, review the pros and cons listed here and apply them regarding your goals, fitness level, and functional ability.
It’s possible to use all free weights, all machines, or a combination of both when building strength and muscle.
Published research shows that improvements in muscle mass, function, and strength are similar whether using cables or free weights.
Other research revealed that people see greater improvements in strength and balance when using free-form exercise as opposed to fixed-form exercise.
Whether using free weights, cables, or both, some of the same guidelines apply:
- Allow 48-96 hours rest between workouts
- 10-15 repetitions for endurance
- 6-12 repetitions for hypertrophy (muscle mass)
- 4-10 repetitions for strength
- Resistance training 2-3 times per week
It’s a good idea for beginners to use mostly cable machines, and then progress to using more free weights which have a greater learning curve.
As your fitness level progresses, the combination of free weights and cable equipment will change. And your workout should change periodically, as well, to avoid overtraining.
If you’re still having difficulty designing your workout, consulting a personal trainer can help.
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