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Just as a chainsaw is more efficient than an ax, some exercises performed with cables and pulleys have clear advantages over their barbell and dumbbell counterparts, depending on what your goal is. To be clear, we’re not denigrating free weights. If you want to build some serious strength, then barbell- and dumbbell-based compound movements are a must for recruiting more muscle and teaching them to work synergistically.
With that said, the benefits of machines are fairly obvious. For one, cables put tension on your muscle throughout the entire exercise, as opposed to just the top or bottom of the movement. They also allow you to have more control over the load so you can more easily adjust the weight midset, making it easier to take your muscle to true failure or to perform dropsets. And last but not least, machines are safe. They allow you to lift as heavy as you want—and can—without the need for a spotter.
One negative, however, is that machines do lock your joints into place. While this isn’t a problem for everyone—especially younger guys—lifters with injuries in larger joints, like in the shoulder, elbow, and knee, may want to stick with more joint-friendly free-weight exercises. However, if you’re able (and game), give this all-machine workout a go for a serious pump.
Typically, you should include both machine and free-weight exercises in your routine.
You can strategically pair machine and free-weight lifts. For example, superset dumbbell flyes and cable crossovers or do only the bottom half-reps of preacher curls and the top half-reps of machine curls.
If you do an all-machine workout, include plate-loaded machines that mimic free weights by allowing a greater range of motion for your joints, such as those in the Hammer Strength line.
Machines with weight stacks distribute stress from start to finish. Also, machines may have safety benefits over free weights. This is especially useful when going heavy while training without a spotter.