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Stacked weight machines let you change resistance quickly.
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When opting to strength train with weights, free weights vs. machines is a common dilemma. If you choose machines, the question then comes down to type. Weightlifting with one type of machine often produces entirely different results than training with another. Machines that use hydraulic resistance, for example, can differ significantly from machines that use stacked weight for resistance. The best type of equipment to use depends on your overall fitness goals, as well as your current level of strength training experience.
Machine Exercise Basics
Training with machines, in general, helps novice lifters learn the proper form for each exercise performed. Most machines include detailed labels that describe the precise muscles worked and the form used during the exercise. The machine will guide the user through the form, with minimal engagement of stabilizer muscles, giving only primary targets work. Both machine types help establish a base level of strength that can help you transition to more advanced strength training, or each type can provide supplementary engagement of muscles that you're trying to target in a larger overall routine.
Hydraulic resistance machines have no weight of any kind to manipulate during the course of an exercise. There is no selector that establishes the level of resistance. You use cables, handles or straps to push or pull during the exercise. The hydraulic system reacts to the level for force you provide to engage the target muscles. The more force you apply, the greater resistance the machine supplies. The machines are common in training facilities geared toward quick-tempo circuit training. Many of the exercises do not mimic the precise form of standard free weight exercises like the bench press, the biceps curl or the shoulder press, but do offer configurations that engage similar target muscles.
Stacked weight machines come in a variety of styles, but the typical configuration is a cable or lever pulley system that you push or pull. This action raises a stack of weight plates up, providing resistance; you control the downward motion by reversing the cable or lever. You can select how much weight the cable or lever will move when operated, but there is a finite range. For example, some stacked weight machines begin at 5 pounds and top out at 120. There is no way to add extra weight if the exercise is easy for you at the top weight. Stacked weight machines often mimic the exact form of a particular exercise, but there are configurations that do not. This sometimes helps novices transition to free weight exercises as they progress.
The biggest difference between the two machine types is resistance. Stacked weight machines have a limited range of weight that you can use, while hydraulic machines theoretically provide as much resistance as your body can produce. In one sense, this makes hydraulic machines more dynamic, and the simplicity of this model makes it ideal for the speedy demands of intense circuit training. If you don't have to fumble to reconfigure the weight constantly, you're spending more time working out. However, stacked weight machines provide an essential element that is lacking with hydraulics - an easy way to quantify progress. Week by week, with stacked weight you'll know how much more you are lifting than in previous sessions. With hydraulics, all you have to go on is the level of force you exert. This can make charting progress difficult.