At a gym that offers a complete range of weightlifting machines, as well as a comprehensive free-weight workout area, you'll find people who use one or the other exclusively and those who routinely use both.
Whether using free weights or a Bowflex machine is more effective is likely determined by the same factors that drive gym-goers to their favorite methods of weightlifting: versatility, safety and how each choice can enhance your approach to strength training.
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So while the choice between Bowflex vs. free weights most often comes down to access and personal preferences, below, we discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of each (if you have the option of choosing).
Benefits of Bowflex Home Gyms
Bowflex offers a few models of home gyms: Xtreme 2 SE and Revolution are two of them. Both provide resistance through cables. This type of resistance is especially helpful for beginners, as it helps them safely develop strength and coordination. With fixed parts guiding the cables, you'll find it difficult to deviate from correct form and can more easily avoid injury.
Bowflex machines, which may be upgraded to provide more than 300 pounds of resistance, can also help you if you're an experienced lifter. You can lift more weight than you could if you were using dumbbells or kettlebells, and you can effectively isolate specific muscles.
If these benefits align with your strength-training style, then investing in a Bowflex may be worth it in the long run.
Benefits of Free Weights
Free weights most commonly include barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells, though medicine balls and sandbags fit in the category, too. The biggest benefit of these is that during every exercise, they require you to use more accessory muscles — in addition to the main muscle you're targeting — to stabilize your body.
Free weights also allow movement in multiple directions within the same exercise, as is required in certain total-body exercises like the snatch. These qualities make free weights more effective for changing body composition and getting a full-body workout.
Disadvantages of Bowflex
The main disadvantage to systems that provide resistance via cables — including Bowflex home gyms — is that fewer supporting muscles are required in any given exercise.
The machine supports your body and allows exercise in only a specific range of movement, so exercises tend to isolate specific major muscles and not require secondary stabilizer muscles to do as much work. This means Bowflex is less effective than free weights for functional movements.
Disadvantages of Free Weights
The same characteristics that make free weights preferable may make them an injury risk for some. Free weights can move in any direction, so muscular control and stability are required. Beginners may find it difficult to perform certain exercises safely and with proper form.
Additionally, some exercises — such as the barbell chest press — may require a partner to act as a spotter.
While both Bowflex home gyms and free weights allow you to complete a total-body workout, both limit your exercise options.
For example, you can exercise your legs with either piece of equipment. However, with free weights, you can do exercises like walking lunges, while the Bowflex doesn't allow for that. Likewise, with the Bowflex, you can do leg extensions, an exercise for isolating the quadriceps (muscles at the front of the thigh), but free weights can't be used for leg extensions.
For those who aren't ready to ditch their free weights, Bowflex offers its SelectTech adjustable dumbbells. By turning a dial, you can adjust the weight of the dumbbells as needed, while minimizing the amount of space that's typically required to store more conventional sets of free weight.