One common question that tends to divide many people is “Which is better for resistance training, free weights (like barbells and dumbbells), or cables?" To answer that lets dig into the pros and cons of each to see which option works best for you!
The Setup Process
Free Weights – Probably the biggest thing to consider when setting up a free weight exercise is that it will always have the same line of force… Gravity. Gravity will always pull a free weight downwards, so that means this simple fact alone will generally dictate how we set up an exercise. For example, you can’t do a bench press to work the chest with a barbell whilst standing up vertically and pressing your arms out in front of you, because the weight will be being forced downwards by gravity, having no effect on the chest. Whereas when you lie down on a bench horizontally with your arms out in front of you, the line of resistance (up and down) now better lines up with the chest muscles that you’re trying to work.
Cables – Cables (adjustable cables especially) on the other hand, can have a line of resistance in pretty much any direction you please. This offers a great level of versatility for training the target muscles through different ranges and in different positions that you may not be able to do with free weights. For example, a face pull wouldn’t be an exercise you try and set up with dumbbells, but it’s extremely easy to set up on a cable system. Not only that but using the cables you can actively see the line of force and adjust either your body position or cable position accordingly to make it line up perfectly.
Natural Movement Path & Your Joints
Some free weight movements more specifically barbell movements don’t always fit perfectly to many people’s anatomy. With a bar being a fixed instrument, you must move your body into the positions to fit the bar, so for example straight barbell curls can occasionally cause a bit of elbow pain for some people with less wrist flexibility, or some barbell movements may feel unnatural and cause discomfort over time. Dumbbells tend to be a lot freer than bars which is why many people find it easier to use them, and they offer the ability to use one arm at a time (train unilaterally) which a bar doesn’t. However, some people find unilateral training takes twice as long as you must train one side then the other etc.
Cables give you the ability to quickly change angles or manipulate body position easily to overload the muscles in any length or range. This can be extremely convenient for being able to train both unilaterally and bilaterally (both arms at a time). The only challenge you may run into could be not having a heavy enough cable weight, but this could also be true for dumbbells hence why many people find it easier and heavier to just load up a bar.
Varying Resistance & Resistance Profiles
So long as you understand the concept of gravity acting on the free weight you can move your body to line up with the muscles as best you can. When doing a drop set with a bar it may take a little longer as you need to remove the clips and then swap out plates, whereas with a set of dumbbells or an adjustable dumbbell it could be easier.
With cables you have a greater ability to affect the resistance profile by setting up to hit shortened ranges of the muscle or lengthened ranges, and with pin selector stacks it can be extremely easy and efficient to do drop sets and supersets, but with plate loaded cables that may take a little longer similarly to removing the plates off a barbell.
Momentum, Exercise Type & Popularity
When it comes to free weights momentum is something many people occasionally use to help move a weight from one point to another, for example the little bit of elastic energy or ‘bounce’ you might create in a bench press, or even more obviously the ‘swing’ in a kettlebell swing. These are things that can’t really be replicated that well on a cable machine. In terms of exercise type, again a devil press, thruster or a clean and jerk for example again isn’t a movement that you’d try and do on a cable machine or with a pulley. Now in terms of popularity of movements when you mention a deadlift or bench press you don’t think of a cable deadlift, and you probably wouldn’t ask someone how much they can cable press. All these things also factor into the argument for many people, as the exercises they choose may also be down to the type of training they prefer. If you’re training for powerlifting, you’re always going to be using a bar for your main lifts, whereas if you’re a strictly just trying to build muscle and line things up comfortably then you might focus more on cables.
So, in summary BOTH have their place. One is not necessarily better than the other as it’s very specific to how YOU train and what your aims and goals are.
Free weights can be limiting in their range of motion and resistance, and may not always fit your structure well, but they are easier to generate momentum with, perform big heavy lifts with, and ‘throw around’ a bit more if that is your goal and training style.
Cables can make it easier to train every range and position comfortably, and then with minor adjustments allow you to manipulate the resistance profiles. This can also help with training longevity and joint health and fitting movements to your individual structure; however, they are not great for generating momentum with, and can sometimes be limited by how strong you are (i.e., you may need a heavier stack).
All in all, implementing a bit of both seems to be the golden ticket for most people, it not only gives you the variety, but it also offers a lot of exercise freedom too!