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
- Easy to learn and use – Most machines have a picture demonstrating its use, which for most machines is pretty self explanatory. This makes them easy to use on their own or with other machines to create your own circuit. If hiring a personal trainer is out of your budget, they are easy to figure out by simply watching the person ahead of you.
- Isolate muscle groups more efficiently – Since most of your body is pretty stable on most machines you are able to target the larger muscle groups more efficiently. This is beneficial to those who have a solid foundation and are looking to improve their physique by building bigger muscles. This can be the preferred method for some bodybuilder types.
- Allow you to train with heavier weights without assistance – If you are fairly inexperienced with proper technique when using free weights, it may be difficult to add resistance. Some machines will allow you to slap on extra weight without risk of injury. This may also be useful if you are pressing or squatting without a partner or spotter. (Note: proper technique is paramount before you need to worry about adding weight. Train smart.)
- May be useful for elderly populations and/or rehab – For someone that has a really low level of fitness and/or is recovering from an injury, machines may be the tool to get their strength up quickly and safely. Since machines isolate it may also be easier to work around certain injuries.
- Non-functional – Although machines will make you bigger and stronger, they don’t train complete human movement patterns (See: primal movement patterns) that are necessary to, well, move. Perhaps the worst machine is the Smith Machine which locks you into place for heavy exercises like squats and bench and doesn’t take into account different body types, which is a recipe for disaster. Weight machines just don’t translate well into strength and fitness for daily activities, not to mention athletics.
- Neglect smaller stabilizing muscles – Since you are isolating target muscle groups, the important stabilizing muscle groups around the joints take a back seat. If you neglect these smaller muscles for too long, you run the risk of chronic injury and poor posture.
- May cause injury directly and indirectly – Although safer to use with lower levels of skill, it is still possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Overloading the same movement day in and day out is also an easy way to set yourself up for an overuse injury. Form is important and like anything else the danger is in the dose!
- Fill up during peak hours – If you have ever worked out in a commercial gym during peak hours you may have noticed that every machine in the place seems to be filled up. Instead of waiting for that guy that has been on the machine bench press for 20 minutes to get up, head over to the free weight area for some more breathing room.
Who Should Use Weight Machines?
- Beginner – Someone who is very new to the gym and doesn’t know how to properly utilize the free weights just yet. Even though there are pictures on the machines I recommend asking for a personal trainer’s advice for proper use.
- Bodybuilders – When size and aesthetics is your main goal there is a lot of efficacy to using machines to pump up those muscles! For a better more well-rounded physique I do recommend a combination of both weight machines and free weights though.
- Rehab – Machines may be an easy way to rehab an injury if you don’t have a physical therapist or trainer to work with you. Once you are feeling better it may be better to move to bodyweight exercises and take preventative measures.
Free Weights – Pros and Cons
- Allow you to train functional movements – This could be a topic on its own, but basically free-weights and bodyweight exercises have greater carryover to what you do in real life such as daily activities as well as athletics.
- You can use full range of motion – You have complete freedom to move around rather than being locked into a specific range of motion or pattern. This allows your body to do what it is naturally built to do, move.
- Place a greater demand on stabilizing muscles – Using free weights will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles while you are training. Will help to keep your joints healthy and fully operational when done properly!
- More bang for your buck exercises – If you have limited time to train and want to get a lot accomplished with few exercises then free-weights are the way to go. My two favorites are deadlifts and Turkish get-ups. There isn’t a muscle in your body that doesn’t get worked with these two alone!
- Allow for endless variation – With machines you are really limited to what you can do depending on what is available. With free weights, all you need is one dumbbell and you can do hundreds of different exercise variations. One of my favorite circuits to do is to choose one dumbbell and do as many exercises as possible for time. Press, squat lunge, swing and carry are just a few!
- Train anywhere – Learning how to train with free-weights or body weight allows you to literally train anywhere since machines aren’t always available. When I go on vacation and travel by car it is easy to bring a kettlebell, some bands and a TRX (affiliate link) to get in some quality training.
- Less expensive – Free weights are the way to go if you don’t have access to a gym since they are much less expensive than machines. You can easily build a killer home gym for under $200!
- Takes some skill to learn proper technique – Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve than machines and you may need someone to show you proper technique. Having a trainer show you or reading a book on weight training may be the way to go. Take your time and try to avoid creating bad habits by copying others that have bad form (e.g. Youtube).
- Greater risk of injury when not done properly – When using bad form it is easy to move a bodypart or joint out of proper alignment and tweak something. This can cause injury so make sure you know what you are doing and use the appropriate weight.
- Need a spotter to lift heavy weight on squat or bench press exercises – Some exercises are difficult to improve on if you don’t have a training partner or which may slow down progress. At the very least you can ask a trainer to check your form and maybe give you a quick spot. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.
Who Should Use Free Weights?
- Most people – Pretty much anybody can benefit from using free weights properly to build a strong and lean body using a good program like the one here at BuiltLean. It is important to build functional strength and muscle to be able to do the things you enjoy and stay active later in life!
- Athletes – To compete at high levels and remain injury-free, athletes’ bodies have to move synergistically and the best way to achieve this is to train the same way. A combination of free weights and bodyweight exercises is the way to go!
- Bodybuilders – The best way to get bigger is to get stronger and the best way to get stronger is through free weights. Once you build up your strength, you can add in some weight machines to isolate and ‘build’ specific muscle groups. I recommend the bulk (no pun intended) of bodybuilding training to come from free weights but it is ok to add in some isolated machine work too!
- Rehab – Free weights may speed up the rehab process by adding in functional movements to get you moving and feeling better. They may also help you get back to the condition you were in before your injury much faster than using machines would.
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?
This is an awesome outline of the key pros and cons in a very clear format. You hit on all the major points.
Great point about using machines for isolation exercises and free weights on compound lifts Definitely a big help in planning workouts
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?
@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!
Marc. Great repertoire of articles! They sure boost incentive. At age 52, I need that.
Keep up the great work and inspiring articles.
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.
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
Thanks for the comment, Joe. You prove you can get in great shape at any age. Steve did a solid job with this article.
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.
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!
Interesting article, thanks for writing.