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.<0018:RDMVFW>2.0.CO;2
  2. McBride JM. Machines versus free weights. NSCA Hot Topic Series. Available from:
  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.

Muscle Fiber Composition In Competitive Powerlifters

Yesterday, I came across a paper focusing specifically on power lifters and how their muscle fiber compositions compare to sedentary counterparts. The study took vastus lateralis biopsy samples from 5 competitive power lifters, and 5 sedentary participants. Muscle fiber compositions were determined using MTPase histochemical analysis. Interestingly, it was found that sedentary participants expressed 12% type 2B fibers, while power lifters expressed an 11-percent decrease to 1% type 2B. Conversely, power lifters expressed 45% type 2A fibers compared to the sedentary group’s 33%.

Recently in class, I had the opportunity to present on another paper that studied the correlation between muscle fiber composition and obesity. The results found that there was a positive correlation between muscle type 2B fibers and BMI. Obese patients expressed 18% type 2B fibers, significantly more than their lean counterparts. The apparent increase in fiber type 2B expression in obese people compared to an apparent decrease in expression of type 2B in power lifters engenders questions as to the reasons behind the shifts.

This seems to communicate that the training, genetic make-up, or both of the competitive power lifters population appears to encourage more type 2A fast-twitch fibers compared to type 2B. The study was limited to groups of n=5, and would likely be greatly informed with an increased sample size. Additionally, a longitudinal study following the muscle fiber composition of individuals proceeding from novice to competitive power lifting could help isolate the effects of training of relative fiber type2A/B compositions.



References for further reading:

  1. Fry, A. C. et al. Muscle fiber characteristics of competitive power lifters. J. Strength Cond. Res. 17, 402–410 (2003).
  2. Tanner, C. J. et al. Muscle fiber type is associated with obesity and weight loss. Am. J. Physiol. Metab. 282, E1191–E1196 (2002).