Differences Between Major Types of Strength Training Equipment


Leverage Machines

Multi-function leverage machines have evolved over the past twenty years for home-use gyms, having been developed earlier for commercial gyms, where they generally performed one operation per machine.  They've been shown to produce accelerated gains in muscular strength and other benefits in resistance training.  The designer's first step was to choose the most effective free weight training exercises. A frame-and-bench structure put the user into the correct position, and a lever arm with a fulcrum was built into the frame. The lever arm had a certain length, and the pivot was set at a particular height in order to duplicate the precise arc, or range of motion, that you work through with the barbell. Weight plates were then loaded near the hand grips to re-create the same natural resistance you experience with a barbell or dumbbell. There were no cables, pulleys, cams or friction. (Now there are, amplifying the options) The result is quite simple and basic: The lever arm replaces the barbell while ensuring control and safety.  For many people, It’s an ideal combination of free weight and machine weight training.

Leverage machines provide the same natural gravity forces as a barbell or dumbbell. This type of raw, pure resistance is the most effective means of force against the muscle. We know free-weight training works, but, as discussed above, it while on the one hand it requires more controlling effort, it also demands more care to avoid muscle strain or potentially worse injury, for the very reason it’s a free weight.  Because they safely control the exercise at all times, leverage machines allow you to push the muscle to total failure; for critical movements there’s a big steel pin to catch the weight if you suddenly want to drop it.  (Referred to as self-spotting capability)  And extra, different, exercises provide the all-round work that muscles miss from free weights' stabilisation needs. 

Better still, well-designed leverage gyms provide plenty of adjustability for body fit, and grip variety to permit varying ways of hitting muscle.  This makes them as effective for serious strength training as any other tool; some say better, because of the guided and potentially more focused nature of the movement.   Modern designs such as the Powertec Leverage Gym also incorporate cable facilities that enable useful pulling exercises for extra variety, adding to the critical presses, lifts and rows offered by the primary lever arms.

Free Weight Training Tools - Barbell with Weights

Free-weight training exercises, which use, say, dumbbells and barbells, provide a natural, free-form type of resistance, and require extra energy (than, say, machine-driven movements) to maintain balance and control while pushing or pulling a weight against gravity. They remain a classic means of strength-training, and the power rack, with its enclosing structure and safety bars to catch a barbell load that can't be well-handled, is a great tool. He has to be in the cage of course to be reasonably safe.  Though even an carelessly overweight lift can cause tendon injury before it's dropped. 


So a key principle of using free weights is that the trainer should a weight that ensures safe execution of the movement, (meaning not too much!) OR alternatively, use a power rack with its safety bars to catch the weight if he overextends himself.  (Or he can use a spotter - an extra person to keep things safe) If we accept these things, barbell-based exercises are the king of heavy lifting.


Barbell with a fixed end, Landmine attachment or pivot plate

This is where you place one end of an Olympic (or other) bar in a fixed spot, (or a device that fixes to the floor or a rack, say), and put weights on the other end.  It has exercise features that are a cross between a leverage machine, a kettlebell and a barbell. The trainer grasps the weighted end of the bar to move it through many planes and angles. It provides a big, new range of strength training moves, both isolation and compound, with particularly strong core movements, and has become rapidly popular over the past few years.

It needs space – sufficient for a trainer to move a bar (one end fixed, 7 feet plus for an Olympic bar, and you need that length unless you’re quite small) through many arcs).  But excellent value for money.


Free Weight Tools - Dumbbells - Usually With a Bench

Dumbbells are the most versatile strength training tools.  They’re free weights, and because they can be held independently in each hand, can be moved through any angle or plane. This gives them massive exercise variety.  Simply changing grips, posture and body position multiplies the options.  Better still, their independence - hand-to-hand - means they naturally engage the core and stabilisation muscles, whatever you’re doing, a bonus.  Being free weight, they’re great for both compound exercises, such as all kinds of presses, bent-over rows, and more, with some exceptions – heavy squats really need the weight on the shoulder. (Though you can get bar with Ironmaster adjustable dumbbells that'll take 100 kg + of Quick-Lock plates. They offer squats, dead lifts, lunges and more using the interlocking dumbbell plates)

Dumbbells are of course ideal for isolation exercises. 

If you’re going to properly use regular dumbbells, you’ll need several pairs, and they take up space.  Check out adjustable dumbbells which give you a big range in the space of a pair.  They’re also quick to change weights with. In fact, some adjustables, matched with a good bench, such as are made by Ironmaster, give the best bang-for-buck in terms of exercise variety, and potential results per square metre of space.  In fact a square metre will easily store them in seconds. 

Finally, getting started with dumbbells is easier than getting started with a barbell approach.  Even a lightly loaded barbell can be cumbersome.  Not a light dumbbell.



Kettlebells have the characteristics of a free weight, with wide grip and posture variety like dumbbells, though the pure exercise variety is less. Their design permits more explosive power and ballistic movement for swings, cleans and presses, which also adapts to more cardio-effective training,  It can also bring particular vigour to movement - but some care is needed to avoid tendon injury from the ballistic aspect! (or an arm flying off!)


Smith Machines

A Wikipedia definition of a Smith machine says it consists of a barbell that is fixed within steel rails, allowing only vertical or near-vertical movement. A Smith machine is often heavy in the base to help stabilise it.  It therefore operates in a single vertical plane, and has hooks on the structure (or other something mechanically similar) to permit the user to quickly rack the lifting bar, giving something close to full self-spotting capability – you’re never more than an inch or so from a hook.  The result is that the natural movement of the bar is absolutely straight – it only goes straight up or down. There is little demand for secondary stabilising action. Very different from a free weight barbell approach.

A normal heavy squat can test your balance, and require all sorts of other-muscle stabilising response.  So you can't do barbell squats on this machine.  (Or, similarly, to a lesser degree, dead lifts)  There are general similarities in what you can do, however, and get excellent and super-isolated glute and quadriceps training.  And a similar whole-body involvement of the dead lift.  Your technique needs to be a little different for both.  You don't, (and can't) go so deep in the squat, and you need to check the height of the lowest peg-stop in the Smith machine to get low enough for a dead lift.   And other exercises, done in differing angles, on the Smith machine, and others, grow the would-be stabiliser capability anyway.  And users of Smith-type machines, like the Ironmaster 2000, are as devoted as any group, are among the most intensive trainers, don’t show any injuries due to the design, often saying that the pleasure of the movement on the IM2000 is very special.


Cable or Weight-Stack Machines

Cable is great for isolation exercises.  Gravity’s resistance is locked in a vertical line that you can use at any angle. It offers even, continuous muscle stress – technically better than anything else, muscle-by-muscle, because you’re continuously applying fixed, gravity-driven resistance. There’s much exercise variety and angle variation. It can be enhanced by lots of grips, handles and rope attachments  However, you don’t get much in the way of compound exercises, (those which use major muscle groups), though you can get good rows with the right handles, and you can perform great cross-body exercises, like wood-choppers, driving the core, shoulders, back and arms.

Cable equipment - specially, units with twin weight-stacks, and particularly, widely-spaced weight stacks, such as are needed for crossovers, can require a lot of space; though some single cable towers which offer a considerable proportion of crossover function in a small space.  Cable machines have a low risk of injury compared with free-weight, apart from the risk of attempting too much. 


Each of these has significant strengths.  Many of our customers are experienced, and these tend to slightly favour racks and free weights, but some also purchase leverage equipment for the variety.  Leverage machines are more the choice with first-time buyers, through their guidance and safety, and in many situations, space-saving benefit. Certainly leverage machines are used more by trainers who have other physical activity, (and where strength training with a leverage gym is just part of the plan)  Free-weight users (of racks especially) tend to centre their major exercise around that device.

Occasionally a distinction of body height, shape or weight can promote a particular choice.  Among women who strength-train, (and bought equipment) there isn’t any apparent distinction from men in these choices. 

FandL Posted by FandL