Whether done with a barbell or on a machine, deadlifts are a multi-joint exercise, making them more effective and time-efficient for strength training than exercises that isolate one muscle.
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Both the machine and barbell deadlifts target the erector spinae in your back but also work the major muscles of your thighs, calves, glutes, upper back and even your abs. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. The one you choose to use depends on your level of fitness and what's available at your gym.
Read more: What Muscles Does a Deadlift Work Out?
To perform a deadlift, start with a barbell on the floor or a machine set to around six inches off the ground. Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Stick your hips back, keeping your spine flat, and reach down to grab the object that you're lifting.
Your hands should be wider than shoulder-width and your arms should be outside of your knees. Keeping your spine straight, pick the object up and press into the ground with your heels. Keep pulling up until you're standing completely straight, then reverse the movement to put the weight down.
How They Differ
Weight machines and free weights work differently, even though the movement looks very similar.
Weight machines help guide your movement. They have a set path that they move through, so you don't have to worry about losing your balance or controlling the weight. That means all of your energy can go towards lifting the weight.
When you lift a barbell, there's no set path. You have to tell it where to go. It requires more skill to lift the weight with good technique.
Machine deadlifts are safer because you don't have to worry so much about controlling the weight. Beginners can benefit tremendously from the machine deadlift because the machine can actually teach them proper form.
If they deviate too far from the path of the machine it will pull them back into place. Also, as the levers move independently, there's less chance of injury through imbalance if one side is weaker than the other. On the barbell, both sides move together.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Deadlifting?
Lifting with free weights builds up balance and athletic ability more than a cable machine. There's also more carryover to real-life scenarios where you have to pick something heavy up off of the ground.
Machines can't shift while you're picking them up, but a heavy box or bag of groceries will.
Deadlift machines are not found in a lot of gyms or fitness centers. They're very expensive compared to a barbell set with weights. The price difference between the two can be in the thousands of dollars.
If you're looking to set up a home gym, the deadlift machine may be unrealistic just because of the price and the space that it consumes.
How They're Similar
Both machine and barbell deadlifts work your posterior chain muscles. That means they're working almost all the muscles in the back of your body. In your upper body they work the trapezius, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi, just to name a few.
Deadlifts also work your glutes, the massive muscles of your hips, and your hamstrings which are the muscles in the back of your thigh.
Despite the differences between free weight and machine deadlift, they're relatively similar in terms of benefits. Both movements will increase the strength of some of the biggest muscles in your body.