Dear SW,

I have a personal theory about working out, but I don't know if it's valid anywhere but in my own mind.

When I see all these gym machines for working out muscles in ways that don't happen in nature, I just roll my eyes and move on to things that make sense to me. When, EVER, do you need to pull your heels toward your ass with weight resistance? Seriously, when? So, why would they make a machine that does that? I'm baffled.

I've been away from the gym for a year, and am just now going back, trying to get my gym mojo rolling once again. I'm curling dumbbells, I'm doing leg presses, hip abductors and adductors, I'm doing chest presses and lat pulldowns—things that make sense to my body.

Is there really any valid reason for me to feel as if I have to use those machines? "47

Thanks for your advice,
The Prodigal Swole

My core problem with weight machines is that people will use them to the exclusion of free-weight exercises, which have much better better than a weight-machine version. But I think there are a couple of reasons people gravitate to machines. First of all, machines take the work out of figuring out which exercises to do. People also tend to gravitate to machines, because they would ordinarily help stabilize you if you were doing the same thing. A free-weight squat with a barbell, for instance, will require you to use your core to help you stabilize the weight and move you in a straight line; a Smith machine squat with the bar on the road, you can safely and smoothly move the weight. Likewise, when you lie in a leg, press your feet. This is beneficial for people who are working on an injury, have some limiting issue like grip strength or mobility, or who have a specific aesthetic goal, like making a certain muscle bigger.

I have another theory about why some people (women in particular) use machines. In a place that's already intimidating and sometimes loud and crowded, machines are just a lot less scary to use than free weights or most free weight areas. With a machine, you just walk up to it, review the little diagram, set it up, and start moving. Particularly for people who are new to the gym and working out, the only thing that feels worse than taking up space in the first place is I could actually get the results. The thing is, if you ceded everything in your life to more experienced, more "valuable" people, you'd never leave the house. You would not have a house; surely there is a bigger winner. This is such an outrageously Darwinist and, if we're being honest, capitalist, way of thinking, that's such a thing as deserving or not deserving access to something. This line of thinking is problematic and unfair in any arena, the gym included.

Look, I know “don’t be this way” is not really the answer to anything, but if this is you, truly, try not to be this way. The thing is, if you ceded everything in your life to more experienced, more “valuable” people, you’d never leave the house. You wouldn’t have a house; surely there is a bigger winner who deserves it more than you. This is such an outrageously Darwinist and, if we’re being honest, capitalist way of thinking—that there’s such a thing as deserving or not deserving access to something. This line of thinking is problematic and unfair in any arena, the gym included.

Here's the deal: We all deserve access to the equipment and space we want to use, regardless of how inexperienced we might be. Of course, it's easier for me to say that to inexperienced and maybe intimidated lifter than for that. This is where you can spend some time learning your way around the gym and some basic movements. A beginner lifting workout will go a long way to making you feel more comfortable, by the way.

Now, I do think many gym bros would have you believe that the weight machines ARE a safe kiddie-space-bunny-hill that newbies can use to get experienced (or jacked) enough to fly with the eagles on the squat racks or in the deadlift area or, lord forbid, at the benches. But you know what? Free weights will have the greatest and most immediate benefit to you, movement- and strength-wise. If strength training is a meal, free-weight movements are the protein, and machine-based movements are more like the gravy, or maybe even the seasoning. And you do not have to "earn" access to use them.

Now that I've made my preference for free weights clear-and the fact that everyone deserves access to them-I'll add that machines do have their place. While many, if not most, of the strongest and most athletic people use machines from time to time or in certain situations, or while training for certain goals like hypertrophy, optimally, those people never use them to the exclusion of free weight exercises. The reason for this is that they have an abdominal injury. 59 out of a movement.

If you have, say, an abdominal injury , you might not be able to do a squat, but you could do a machine leg press; you might not be able to do an overhead press, but you can sit and use. Even the most elite athletes might rotate a machine movement in a free-weight while they recover from an injury or focus on correcting some of kind of imbalance. By the way, this post has examples of when and how machines can be a useful addition to a routine.

You can have a complete and successful lifting program without machines, but I don’t think you can say the same thing for free weights. I can’t readily think of a muscle that can be targeted by a machine or worked in some way that a free-weight exercise can’t do. As an example, the gym I currently attend has basically no machines—yes, such places exist—save for a pulley setup that can be used for tricep work and a few other things, and even those are nonessential. Otherwise, it’s just barbells, dumbbells, and plates, and there are many very strong and balanced people there. Of course, your mileage and needs and goals may vary from those of the people who work out at my gym. It’s quite possible that machines will help you learn a movement pattern or will be a great addition to your program for another reason.

I grant you that free-weight exercises take a little time, investment, and research to learn, more so than sizing up a machine and glancing at its little instruction diagram and then hopping on like it’s a theme park ride. But when I think of all the time I spent worried about whether I was exercising right, whether I was doing what would get be the results I wanted, poring over the tabloid workouts of celebrities in the grocery checkout, and added it all up, it’s almost certainly more time than it took me to grasp the fundamentals of doing a squat. The results of a free-weight-based routine required an upfront time investment, but it was completely worth it. Plus, the internet makes learning this stuff much easier now. In times of yore, you would probably have to ask someone at the gym to show you what to do, and even worse, they might tell you incomplete or inaccurate things like to point your toes forward and never let your knees go past your toes. Nowadays, you can hole up with your computer for a little bit, watch some videos from reputable sources (Starting Strength and StrongLifts are two good resources), practice in a mirror at home, and then go into the gym.

Strength is for everyone, but it's especially for women. Ask a Swell Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about the strength of training or anything related? If you're ready to give your body what it needs, to test your grit, and become more than you ever have been, email AASW@self.com.


Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @ caseyjohnston.