Fitness: What's best for my body

By Rob Virtue on August 24, 2014 9:31 AM |

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Your colleague swears by dumbbells; you get great results from machines, writes Laura Williams. So who's right? Here's my take on the most common fitness debates.

■ Free weights vs machines

Free weights are versatile, inexpensive and allow you to practise functional, everyday movements as well as providing a more challenging workout. However, maintaining proper form during an exercise is vital for injury prevention and a spotter is often needed if you're lifting a heavy weight.


Machines, on the other hand, tend to control the resistance from the weight stack by one specific movement, which can be useful if you're focusing on one muscle group at a time.

Typically they take you through a guided range of motion that is beneficial if you're new to strength training or recovering from an injury.

However, most machines still don't really mimic functional movements plus they usually require gym memberships.

The verdict

For versatility and quality of workout, free weights are best, although machines have their place.

■ Treadmill vs outdoor running

A lot of this comes down to preference - exercisers tend to have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill.

Personal preference aside, treadmills offer advantages. Many modern models have padded belts making them more supportive for the overweight or injury-prone. This reduction in impact is kinder on the joints.

Treadmills also offer a viable tarmac alternative when the weather lets you down.

On the downside, many people find them dull and monotonous, which can be alleviated by varying both speed and gradient (you should run at a 1% gradient anyway if you're looking to mimic outdoor running in order to offset the lack of wind resistance and the loss of energy expenditure that occurs as a result of the belt propelling you forward).


Running outside is undoubtedly the more convenient of the two.

The verdict

There's a place for both, although calorie-burn for outdoor running is slightly higher. This one comes down to personal preference.

■ Yoga vs Pilates

Both will help increase muscular strength and improve flexibility.

Pilates classes offer a total body workout with a strong focus on maintaining alignment in the spine and strengthening the core. Exercises are mat work or on equipment such as the Reformer, which uses springs, pulleys and ropes for additional resistance.

In a yoga class, however, while your muscles will get a workout, classes are a combination of exercise, breathing and meditation.


The verdict

The focus of Pilates tends to be on strengthening the core while yoga's primarily philosophical and spiritual. As an exercise though, Pilates probably wins out although they have a similar calorie burn. If you're torn, do both, they complement each other.

■ High vs low intensity

This really is the great fitness debate. Recent research from Laval University found that a group performing lower intensity cardio burnt more calories on average compared to the High Intensity Interval Training group but the latter were found to have greater loss of body fat along with a bigger hike in metabolism.

It's universally agreed that while low-to-moderate intensity exercise provides a boost to your immune system, high intensity training can suppress it up to 72 hours after your workout.

The verdict

Balance is key with this one although you'll need some high intensity stuff to see fitness benefits. If you overdo it though, you might find yourself poorly and worn out. If in doubt, keep an exercise journal and assess how you feel after each workout.

■ Stretching vs not bothering

As much as you like to strike a pose and limber up pre-workout (this could be due to putting off the inevitable, you realise), many recent studies have now found pre-workout, static stretching of 90 seconds plus can reduce strength in the stretched muscles by over 5%, as well as reducing muscular power by around 2%.

The verdict

Current thinking is that static stretching (holding a stretch in one position without movement) is best suited to the end of your workout, as part of a cool down. You're better off not stretching and preparing your muscles and joints for exercise with a dynamic warm-up (think leg swings, multi-directional lunges and easy body weight squats).

Follow Laura on Twitter @laurafitness