Free Weights vs. Machines: How Should You Choose?

A major choice when deciding what workout to do is whether to use machines or free weights. Machines are typically resistance training devices that have cables, adjustable weight stacks, and levers to customize workouts for the user in a controlled manner, while free weight exercises are more ‘free-form’ and involve using dumbbells or plates on utility benches or squat racks. Some people may prefer machines because the workouts are guided, as the machine controls the path of motion of the weight and has diagrams to properly explain how to use the machine. However, free weights are more similar to real-life movement patterns, requiring the same types of forces common in daily activities and sports. So how should you choose which workout style is best? This depends on what your goal is. So first, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of both machines and free weights.

 

There are several studies that have looked at the pros and cons of free weights and machines, with this round table discussion being the most interesting. Free weights are inherently unguided, so when performing exercises, like squatting with a barbell, not only are the muscles to lift the weight required, but also the supporting muscles to help you balance and stabilize while you perform the squat are active. Using free weights directly translates to typical daily activities, like lifting bags of groceries or unloading heavy items from a car, as mentioned by McBride. Additionally, free weights are typically less expensive to purchase and maintain than machines because they only require the actual weight, not a large piece of equipment to guide and apply the weight. Once purchased, free weights can be more cost effective than machines because they don’t have any moving parts that need to be greased or cleaned, or cables that may break if rust accumulates. Another advantage to free weights is that they come in many different shapes and sizes, so they are more customizable for the individual as there is no minimum or maximum height requirement to use free weights, and the same weights can be used for multiple different types of exercises.

Free weights come in different shapes and sizes so workouts can be adjusted for the individual.

Free weights sometimes require using a spotter and special racks to hold the weights.

However, free weights can often be intimidating for novice users because they require knowledge of different types of exercises, as well as understanding how heavy the weights should be for these different exercises to prevent injury while still seeing results. Some free weight exercises, like bench presses, are best performed with spotters and special racks, so this may add additional cost as well as requiring another person to work out with you, which is not always convenient. Another disadvantage to free weights is that they often require more space than machines; ample room is required surrounding the individual using free weights to avoid hitting anyone or anything while performing exercises.

 

On the other hand, machines are attractive to novice weight lifters and athletes and are very user-friendly. As mentioned previously, machines are advantageous because they control the movement of the exercise. This controlled movement guides users to perfect form and minimizes potential for injury. Additionally, machines bear utility for injured persons who still seek to exercise uninjured areas but cannot move free weights into the necessary start position due to their injuries. Still further, machines allow users to quickly change weights between sets, making for a more efficient workout. Lastly, machine users never require a spotter and thus allow athletes to exercise safely alone, a major pro mentioned in the round table discussion.

 

Machines guide the user’s motion during exercise, decreasing risk of injury.

Cables and pulleys on machines can wear over time, increasing the cost of maintenance for exercise equipment.

 

One drawback of machines is their high cost, as they are significantly more expensive than free weights on average. Due to the guided load path offered by machines, they  suffer from limited stabilizer muscle activation. Additionally, machines typically isolate single muscle groups, which does not allow for explosive training. Further, the isolated nature of machines does not mimic real world movements or lift patterns.

 

In conclusion, if you desire an effective workout and prefer to workout alone and have no cost limit, machines may be the best choice for you. However, if you like to workout with a partner or are short on funds, free weights may be the better choice. Both workout types show results when utilized correctly, so be sure to experiment with both machines and free weights to find the workout type that works for you!

Questions to Consider:

Are there any sports that would soley benefit from one lifting modality versus the other?

If you’re trying to isolate muscle groups in the legs, would you benefit more from a machine or free weight workout?

In your experience, do you find machines or free weights more user friendly? Do you find either to give you a more satisfying workout?

References for Further Reading:

  1. Haff, G. G. (2000). Roundtable Discussion: Machines Versus Free Weights. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 22(6), 18. https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4295(2000)022<0018:RDMVFW>2.0.CO;2
  2. McBride JM. Machines versus free weights. NSCA Hot Topic Series. Available from: http://www.nsca-lift.org.
  3. McCaw, Steven T., and Jeffrey J. Friday. “A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight and machine bench press.” J Strength Cond Res 8.4 (1994): 259-64.
  4. Santana, Juan Carlos. “Machines versus Free Weights.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 23.5 (2001): 67.
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12 thoughts on “Free Weights vs. Machines: How Should You Choose?

  1. I think both machines and free weights have benefits and times when they are most appropriate. For me personally, I use mostly free weights and the cable towers. I have sensitive joints and often the way the machines force me to do the motion leads to pain. While machines restricting motion is good for beginner who are learning and using light weights, machines can only adjust to different body sizes so much. Often seats move up and down for torso height adjustments, but people also have different ratios of forearm to upper arm or lower to upper leg and machines are unable to adjust to these difference. This can lead to the machine forcing a motion that is not the most ideal for your body. Another reason I prefer free weights is mentioned in this post- they require more supporting muscles and mimic real life motion better. This allows for a more efficient and effective workout.

    • You make good points Jackie, I prefer free weights for the same reasons. When I was part of organized sports in high school, I was properly trained on machines, and I think because I was required to use them, when I wanted to work out on my own I wanted to do something different. I still have a bias towards free weights because I find them more ‘fun’…and I find free weight exercises to be more customizable! I have also purchased my own free weights that I can just leave at home for when I don’t have time to do a full workout at the gym. There are so many instructional videos online now that I never run out of exercises to do!

  2. I agree with Jackie in that both free weights and machines can be beneficial for different groups of people. For me personally, when I started training I used machines first to get stronger and more importantly learn good technique. I had to consciously try and use balance muscle groups as well as the main muscle groups the specific machine was targeting. (Another con of machines for me is that they are sometimes annoying to adjust). I moved to free weights after and I found it more difficult, but the results were more obvious to me. I can do less weight on free weights than machines, but I prefer free weights now. Using free weights with poor technique can lead to serious injuries, so it’s important to use proper form or a spotter when necessary.

  3. I typically exercise with free weights in the gym, yet have found that machines can be useful as a complementary exercise within my free weight workout. Also, I have used machines in rehab to help strengthen the muscles in my ankle after injuring it. I definitely believe that both methods are useful, but personally find a free weight routine to be more satisfying and give better results.

  4. In my own experience, I find that free weights give a more personalized and effective workout. They allow much more freedom to the workout. However, this freedom can also be a drawback as poor technique can lead to injury or a less effective workout. All in all, I think both are useful for certain exercises but people just starting out may find it helpful to use the more structured machines.

  5. When I workout, I use both machines and free weights. I’m not very experienced with the free weights, and the machines are easier for me to maneuver to get a workout in. However, I use free weights to workout my arms after I run on the treadmill. Does combining both show any benefit compared to doing one or the other? I think trying out both is good for a beginner, but once you find one that works you can stick with it. Maybe once I get used to using different free weights i’ll lean more towards using those, but the machines are quick and simple to use.

  6. I like this article a lot, particularly mentioning that more amateur gym goers should use machines to avoid hurting themselves or having improper form. Having a guided motion, being able to adjust seat heights and lever arms to allow for the optimal range of motion and stretch will help to eliminate potential injuries that could come with using other dumbbells or free weights. However, their is one problem with free weights that a lot of people I think get confused about. On the weight stacks, typically their are sticker labels in pounds. For example, at the University of Delaware gym, the max weight stack on the fly machine says 200 pounds or so. However, with the pulley system and the rest of the guidance from the machine, the actual force put on the person doing the flies is significantly less then this. This could be confusing for some athletes, being able to do 150 pounds on the fly machine is very different then doing free weight flies with 75 pound dumbbells, and keeping proper form. These labels I think should be changed to be more accurate to the actual resistance put on the person using the machine.

  7. As a person who generally sticks to the treadmills or bikes, and only occasionally uses the machines on the first floor of the little bob, I find the free weights very intimidating in the gym. I like the guidance that the machine gives, not just it showing how to properly use the machine, but it also shows you what muscle groups you are using so you can make sure you hit everything you want to. I think that the free weights would give a more satisfying workout, because you are in complete control without guidance, but without proper knowledge on what I am doing, I personally feel much safer on the machines, knowing that I can’t drop something heavy on myself or someone else.

  8. This comparison is super interesting due to how relevant it is to anyone who goes to the gym. A lot of what you mentioned was in regards to injury rates from free weights vs machines, but I was wondering if you found any statistics on that? I would be really curious to know how different injury rates truly are.

  9. I am typically someone who is more comfortable running on a treadmill than lifting weights. This is due to pure intimidation. Its interesting to see that actual studies have been done to differentiate machines versus free weights because I wasn’t aware that there was that much of a difference. But after reading about, I’ve realized that I do typically stay away from free weights when I’m at the gym because I like the guided motion of the machine and it helps me pretend like I know what I’m doing. I also use free weights at home because they are more practical for a 1 story apartment. It would be interesting to see if using free weights is even beneficial due to my inexperience. I would love to find out how often injury occurs due to inexperience of free weights and if it would be better to start with machines and then move on to free weights.

  10. It seems a majority of the negatives related to free weight training are due to an unwillingness to try them due to intimidation for lack of education. I wonder if participants were properly trained in how to perform free weight exercises, would they respond better to free weight training than to machine training?

  11. I agree that for most people, especially those who are not super knowledgeable about exercise, it is safer to use machines over free weights as it does provide more guidance in your workout. In this scenario, I also feel that machines would provide a more effective workout, as a lack of knowledge about proper use would often translate into improper and ineffective use.

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