I’m in the process of transitioning from machines to free weights. When using free weights, I can’t use as much weight. Is there a formula that I can use (i.e., 100 pounds on a machine = 50 pounds with free weights)? Any tips?
First things first, let’s talk a bit about free weights versus machines.
A free weight is any object or device that can move freely through three-dimensional space. Typically, when we talk about free weights, we’re referring to dumbbells or barbells. Machines, on the other hand, typically only moves through two dimensions. They’re the large, clunky apparatuses that you’ll see in most major gyms.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Since machines help guide exercisers through the movements, they’re great for beginners and have a much lower intimidation factor. Because they assist in maintaining proper form, there’s also a lower injury risk. Unfortunately, as you’ve discovered, they provide a false sense of strength. Lifting something in real life is very different from using a machine, and so the strength gains from machines aren’t necessarily functional.
Free weights, on the other hand, engage a wider range of muscles – including stabilizers; the strength gains from free weights translate to the real world. In addition, the amount of muscle activation is greater with free weights. Though they’re more advanced and more intimidating, free weights also improve balance and are cheaper and more convenient than machines. Of course, because it’s much easier to compromise form while performing free weight exercises, the risk of injury is greater.
When making the transition from machines to free weights, it’s important to realize that you’ll need to significantly reduce the amount of resistance that you use. For example, I can squat 400 pounds on a machine – but only 225 pounds with free weights (using a barbell).
Because no two people are alike and because each machine works differently, there’s no easy formula to translate resistance from machines to free weights. It requires trial and error. I suggest starting very light, and working up from there until you reach the desired number of repetitions based on your workout goals.
As you make the transition to free weights, it’s always a good idea to work with a certified personal trainer to ensure that you’re maintaining proper form. Because the risk of injury is higher with free weights, this is a wise safety precaution. A trainer can also help you select free weight exercises that are in support of your fitness goals.