Whether done with a barbell or on a machine, deadlifts are a multi-joint exercise, making them more effective for strength training and calorie burning than exercises that isolate one muscle. Both machine and barbell deadlifts target the erector spinae in your back but also work the major muscles of your thighs and calves, your glutes, your upper back and even your abs. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. Which you choose may depend on your level of fitness, goals and what's available at your gym.
The Right Moves
The deadlift involves lifting a barbell or the handles of a levered machine with extended arms while straightening from a squat to a standing position. It's important to keep your back straight and keep your hips straight while squatting. You then press through your heels to initiate the upward motion. Your hips and shoulder should move at the same rate as you press into a full standing position.
Barbell Constant Resistance
Free weights offer constant resistance. That is, the weight remains the same throughout the move so there will be parts when the lift is harder and parts when it's easier. A barbell allows you freedom of motion as you perform the deadlift exercise. You control the movement and path of the bar. Constant resistance better simulates real-life activities, such as lifting an object off the floor and is better for building overall strength. Constant resistance also makes greater use of the assisting muscles. However, if you are a beginner and you have not perfected the proper deadlift technique, you may have difficulty controlling the bar. Another drawback of constant resistance is that you can only lift as much weight as you can handle at your weakest point.
Variable Machine Resistance
A deadlift machine offers variable resistance. This means that the resistance required is the same throughout the range of motion. There are no weaker and stronger points, meaning you can generally work with more weight than you could with barbells. However, your stabilizing muscles won't get as much work as with a barbell, and the specific path of motion may or may not be comfortable or natural for you.
Sizing Up Your Choices
For beginners, the deadlift machine may provide a safer training option as machines tend to keep you in proper form. Also, as the levers move bilaterally, there's less chance of injury through imbalance if one side is weaker than the other. However, unlike other leg machines, such as a leg press or leg extension, deadlift machines are not found in a lot of gyms or fitness centers. Whether you use a deadlift machine or a barbell, start with a lighter weight than you think you can handle to avoid injury to back and knees.