If you’re starting a weightlifting program at home, then you might be asking are cables better than free weights? You have no doubt been considering if it would be better to invest in a cable machine, or if you should stick with free weights. Either way, you will be making an investment, so the real question might be which method is better for building muscle? Many seasoned weightlifters believe that the only true way to build muscle is the old-fashioned way: free weights.
But the reality is that a cable machine, or functional trainer, offers more versatility and a safer weightlifting workout while maintaining the same benefits as you would get from free weights. In this article, we will outline the difference between free weights and a cable machine and discuss the question of whether cables are better than free weights.
Weight Training for Muscle Building
The goal of any weight training exercise is to work a specific muscle group. The best way to accomplish this is to set up the exercise so that the resistance is properly lined up to work specifically on that muscle group.
Whether it’s with free weights, like dumbbells or barbells, or using a cable machine to help facilitate the action of lifting the weight, the goal is to work the muscle and build more mass.
Free Weights Vs. Cables
Free weights include anything that is free to move in any direction and is not bound by a cable. Dumbbells and barbells are examples of free weights. There are numerous exercises that can be performed with a set of free weights, but the downfall is that you will need an entire set of different weights to get any kind of variety.
For those looking to set up a home gym, this might not be feasible, either because of the cost or because of the space they take up. A cable machine, or function trainer, is different from free weights because there is a system of cables and pulleys that separate the user from the weight stack itself.
When you manipulate different parts of the machine, it activates different pulleys and cables that lift the weights as you pull or push. The variety of exercises that can be performed with a cable system is greater than what can be done with free weights, and you don’t need a bunch of equipment to complete them.
Considering Gravity and Resistance
When using free weights, the line of force, or gravity, is always the same. It’s based on a line of vertical resistance which results from gravity as you raise the weight. Targeting specific muscles or muscle groups can be accomplished, but only if the person is experienced enough to utilize correct positioning.
Otherwise, the resistance only results from the line of gravity created by the positioning of the muscles used to lift the weight, and the position of the weight itself. When using a cable machine, or functional trainer, the line of resistance is created by the angle and position of the cables themselves.
This gives the user more versatility for muscle training by allowing the line of resistance to be altered depending on the exercise being performed. When using free weights, you can only lift the weight up. But a cable machine allows you to work the muscles in a wider range of positions that are impossible to achieve with free weights.
A Cable Machine is All-In-One
A greater variety of resistance lines can be achieved with free weights with the use of a wide variety of barbells and dumbbells. But in a gym setting, this can be difficult to accomplish, because the free weight section is a popular section of the gym and is usually busy and crowded. This means you may have to wait your turn to use a specific set of weights.
In a home gym setting, you don’t have to wait your turn, for the most part, but working with a wider variety of weights means purchasing all of them for your home. For some people, the space and money it would take to accomplish this is simply not available.
When using a cable machine, there is no need to jump around the gym to get a variety of exercises.
Everything can be done by simply changing body position or slightly manipulating the cables and pulleys in a different manner. This means you don’t have to share, or wait your turn, when trying to accomplish a wide variety of exercises.
It has to be said however, that there are some excellent adjustable dumbbells available that offer amazing convenience and flexibility – although they do come at a price.
Check out our run-down of how to use Powerblock Dumbbells for a peak at the best adjustable dumbbells that money can buy.
The Risk of Injury
Another thing to consider is regarding the natural movement of the body when manipulating weights. Wrist, shoulder, and elbow injuries are common when using free weights, because it’s hard to adjust the grip positioning when limited by the upward lift motion required.
This is especially true when performing bilateral exercises. A cable machine allows for more freedom when it comes to adjusting the grip and positioning of the pull. This gives the user more support and accommodation and can reduce the chances of injury.
Cable machines are great for beginners but can also be just as valuable for expert users. The great thing about a cable machine is that it ensures proper technique, which reduces the chance of injury from using improper body mechanics and limits the chance that you will target the wrong muscle group by performing the exercise incorrectly.
Momentum and Tension
One of the benefits of free weights comes from the ability to produce more momentum when performing an exercise. This means you may need to take more time to do more reps. But that increased momentum isn’t always a good thing, and if uncontrolled can lead to injury from using improper form.
Cable machines require that you continually utilize muscle tension, including during both the flex and release motions of the exercise. While using free weights, one can consciously make the decision to maintain muscle tension, but it’s also possible to release all muscle tension and simply let the weight drop. The use of cables is a constant reminder to use tension throughout the entire exercise, maximizes the result on the muscle.
Isolating Muscle Groups
Cables machines are great for isolating a single muscle or muscle group. For the most part, using free weights activates multiple muscles groups together, especially when standing during the exercise. While this can be beneficial for those who wish to gain maximum growth overall, targeting a specific muscle group can be useful as well.
Some people like to target a specific muscle group during lifting, as is the case with super sets. This is harder to achieve with free weights. It can also make it harder to avoid activating specific muscles, as may be the desire when recovering from injury.
Which Is Better for Building Muscle?
It’s a common belief that the best way to build muscle quickly is using free weights. A lot of weightlifters and bodybuilders swear by it. And while there’s nothing wrong with choosing to use free weights, it’s a complete misconception that one will gain muscle mass more quickly by doing so.
A cable machine works muscles in the same way that free weights do. By manipulating the amount of weight lifted in the stack, the angle of the cable and pulleys being utilized, and the type of exercise being performed, muscles get the same amount of load as they would by lifting a dumbbell.
Are Cable Machines Safer?
According to a study published in American Journal of Sports Medicine, over 90% of gym injuries occur from lifting dumbbells and barbells. The action of directly pushing or pulling against the force of gravity, and the fact that free weights offer little stability throughout the movement, greatly increases the risk of injury.
A cable machine gives the user more stability throughout the movement and puts less stress on joints. If the user loses their grip or releases the machine mid-flex, the machine lowers the weight for them. When using free weights, incorrectly performing an exercise, or releasing a weight in mid-flex, includes a great risk of injuring the muscle being activated.
When working out in a home gym, a cable system is exponentially safer than attempting to lift free weights. While lifting a dumbbell or barbell isn’t that inherently dangerous, if you’re planning to do
bench presses or leg lifts, or anything that requires a spotter, free weights can be tragically dangerous when working out alone.
Cable machines are also safer for beginner level weightlifters, as the machine itself guides them through the exercises in a safe manner, without the risk of injury. They can be great for serious body builders, as they provide the same amount of muscle load as a free weight lift, but cable machines are a great option for beginners, seniors, and for those looking to rehabilitate after injury.
When putting together a weight training program at home, there’s no doubt that a cable machine makes more sense for most people. It’s a great way to isolate muscle groups safely and get a great workout without sacrificing the benefits of building muscle. Using a cable machine either at home or in the gym, can offer many benefits for everyone.
Enhance your small home gym with our top 5 cable machine picks for compact spaces: Explore our comprehensive guide here.
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