At a gym that offers a complete range of weight-lifting 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 most effective is likely to be determined by the same factors that drive gym-goers to their favorite methods of weight lifting: versatility, safety and how each choice can enhance your own individual approach to strength training.
Benefits of Bowflex
As of the date of publication, Bowflex offers two models of home gyms: Xtreme 2 SE and Revolution. 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 will find it difficult to deviate from correct form and easier to avoid injury. Bowflex machines, which may be upgraded to provide over 300 pounds of resistance, can also help you if you are an experienced lifter. You can lift more weight than you could if using free weights and you can effectively isolate specific muscles.
Benefits of Free Weights
Free weights include both barbells and dumbbells. The biggest benefit of both is that during every exercise they require you to use more muscles -- in addition to the muscle you are 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 most effective for changing body composition and getting a total body workout.
Disadvantages to Bowflex
The main disadvantage to systems that provide resistance via cables -- including Bowflex machines -- 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 the Bowflex is less effective than free weights for exercise through functional movements.
Disadvantages to Free Weights
The same characteristics that make free weights preferable may make them dangerous. 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 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 does not allow for that. Likewise, with the Bowflex you can do leg extensions, an exercise for isolating the muscles of the front thigh, but free weights cannot be used for leg extensions.