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Free Weights vs. Machines: Which Is Better?

Walk into any commercial fitness gym and you’ll see a combination of both free weights and machines for various strength training exercises. Some people use just free weights for their workout, some go from machine to machine to get their pump, and some use a combination of both to optimize their physique. This creates the question: which is better for you?

Free Weights vs. Machines: The Debate

The debate on whether machines or free weights are better for building muscle has been around for decades. There was a time not too long ago when machines ruled in the gym world and were ‘the’ way to train. This was what all the cool kids were doing!

Then, people realized that while machines are good for training size and strength they neglect key core & stabilization muscles. This paved way to ‘functional’ fitness and people started believing that machines were now bad for you. But I’m sure if you wait another decade or so machines may reign supreme once again, who knows!

So, when it comes to the question of, “Which is better?” I think it is safe to say that it depends on the person and their ultimate goals. Basically, exercises that may be good for some people may not be for others. Let’s find out the pros and cons of weight machines vs. free weights and which one is right for you.

Weight Machines – Pros and Cons



Who Should Use Weight Machines?

Free Weights – Pros and Cons



Who Should Use Free Weights?

Free Weights vs. Machines: Recommendations

For my own strength training programs, I prefer to use mainly free-weight exercises that focus on compound movements and total body strength. Every once in a while, though, I will throw in some bicep curls or use the row machine to change it up a bit.

I hope this list helps you decide which is best for you. At the end of the day, the form of strength training you choose should be based on what your goals are and what makes you feel good. After all, isn’t that what exercise is all about?


  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    This is an awesome outline of the key pros and cons in a very clear format. You hit on all the major points.

  • James says:

    Great point about using machines for isolation exercises and free weights on compound lifts Definitely a big help in planning workouts

  • Nic says:


    I'm in a bit of a conundrum. I absolutely love running, and I put in roughly 50-70 miles per week. This makes it hard to gain muscle. Is there a way I can still add muscle and achieve an aesthetic physique with this much cardio? Also would I be overtraining if I added in some strength exercises?


    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Nic - that is a difficult challenge. Here are some things to consider:

      1) Decide how much muscle you want to add - Consider doing this based on body measurements, or create strength goals

      2) Reduce training volume - You can keep up the intensity while reducing training volume and still maintain your cardiovascular shape by shifting more towards interval training runs/sprints. This will allow you to remain more metabolic.

      3) Eat like a horse - the best way to describe a muscle building program is glutenous. You basically have to stuff yourself with calories and protein, almost to an uncomfortable level. I don't love muscle building because you constantly feel bloated. Of course, you will follow all the other guidelines like focusing on a few main exercises and getting stronger in them over time. So if you can bench 135 for 10 reps, work up to 185 pounds for 10 reps. Not easy, but possible.

      Building muscle is hard, building muscle while doing a bunch of cardio is very, very hard. Hope that's helpful and good luck!

  • Captain Doug says:

    Marc. Great repertoire of articles! They sure boost incentive. At age 52, I need that.

    Keep up the great work and inspiring articles.

  • John G. says:

    I was thinking about your comment on how machines don't work stabilizer muscles. In certain instances I would agree when looking at traditional weight machines in a a gym. However Bowflex and bio force gyms do challenge stabilizer muscles and have consistent resistance throughout a full range of motion.

    I am. It convinced that either is superior, and as such I use both.


    J. G.

  • Joe says:

    Marc, great article, targets all groups. @Nic I am a 69 year old male who weighed 250# in April 2012. In October 2012 I weighed 165#, I started running(love to run) 6 miles a day 7 days a week. I also joined a small gym wanting to put on muscle that was all lost when I was fat, I felt better but could not gain muscle. I changed my running to intervals, myself I run a 5mph pace and interval up to 8mph for one minute, i interval 10 times in three miles. I have started putting on muscle, upper arms 2" and growing, I feel better, look better, and
    feel I get enough running in to fill my crave of running.

    Thanks Again Marc

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. You prove you can get in great shape at any age. Steve did a solid job with this article.

  • Tiana C. says:

    I have problems with my back, so exercise machines are difficult sometimes. I have been working out in a heated pool for 30-45 minutes a couple of times a week when I can.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Tiana,

      My best piece of advice would be to seek a qualified professional (personal trainer or physical therapist), even if it is only for a couple sessions. It may help get you back on your feet sooner and prevent further injury depending on the severity of your condition. If you read this site I am assuming you are fitness minded and trying to make a serious change in your life!



  • Matiss Stein says:

    Interesting article, thanks for writing.
    Matiss Stein