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.

Free Weight vs Machines: Is One Better Than the Other?

Searching for the best possible way to make gains in the gym can often be tricky or overwhelming. When you walk into the gym you can probably find a wide range of weight machines along with rows of dumbbells and squat racks. Many lifters incorporate a mix of free weights and machines when they are training. Free weight exercises require balance and they allow for movement in multiple planes while weight machines provide movement over a fixed range of motion. Some people swear by free weights alone and wouldn’t dare touch an exercise machine at the gym. Others solely use weight machines in their workouts. Which method of lifting is the best way to get in shape?

The benefits of using weight machines are that they are easy to use and figure out which is especially helpful for beginners. They are considered “safe” in the sense that you will not drop a heavy weight on yourself or someone. It is also easier to change resistance and loads on a machine. However, the movements one makes on a weight machine do not imitate natural movements we make every day. The exercises done on a weight machine usually do not target large muscle groups so isolated training is required.

The advantages of free weights are that they mimic real world movements and they target larger muscle groups, working more muscles in one exercise at a time. They require the use of stabilizing muscles so one must balance to perform the exercises. This coordination is part of the reason they are more natural movements that can help in day to day activities. Common disadvantages are that they are intimidating to beginners and some exercises require a spotter.

Lifters often quantify their strength by their one repetition maximum (1RM) or the heaviest weight a muscle/muscle group can successfully lift just one time with correct form. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared the force produced by muscles when squatting and bench pressing free weights or in a Smith machine. The results showed that participants had a greater 1RM in squatting with a Smith machine. Alternatively, participants had a greater 1RM when bench pressing using free weights. A previous study comparing free weight squats and bench press to machines showed greater 1RM in machines than in free weights, however the differences were not significant.

Example of a man squatting under a smith machine.

Another study done by Schick et. al. (2010) was conducted to compare the activation of muscles when bench pressing on Smith machine or a free weight bench press. The results found that there was significantly greater activation of the medial deltoid in the free weight bench press than in the Smith machine bench press. The instability caused by the free weight bench press requires more use of medial deltoid to both stabilize the body and produce the force necessary to lift the weight. The results did not show differences of activation in the larger chest muscles. The study used experienced and inexperienced lifters to determine whether one exercise was better beginners or not, but they did not find any significant differences between groups. It should be noted, however, that the study defined experienced as someone who consistently benched twice a week for 6 months. It may have been more helpful to use subjects with some more time and experience lifting.

The studies conducted do not necessarily favor any mode of exercise over another. I believe that more experiments should be performed to study the long-term effects of using free weights vs machines and whether one method may lead to faster results.

When deciding on whether to choose to lift using free weights or machines, it is best to determine what your goals are. If you want to be more efficient in the gym and use the most muscles in less exercises, free weights are your best bet. If you do want to isolate certain muscles and have more time to spare weight machines will work well. Many people incorporate both free weights and machines in their workout regime. I think it is most important to keep in mind that free weights are safe and activate more muscles when performed correctly. While weight machines may help in making you stronger, they avoid working those stabilizing muscles to help with balance. So, when your buddy needs help moving his couch up 3 floors to his apartment, you might wish you trained with free weights instead.


Recommended Further Reading:

A Comparison of Muscle Activation Between a Smith Machine and Free Weight Bench Press

Comparison of muscle force production using the Smith machine and free weights for bench press and squat exercises.

Training Principles: Evaluation of Modes and Methods of Resistance Training

Comparison of One Repetition Maximums Between Free Weight and Universal Machine Exercises

Strength Training: Free Weights or Machines?

Roundtable Discussion: Machines Versus Free Weights