Free Weights vs Machines
A question that is often debated in the world of exercise concerns a battle for supremacy: which is better, free weights or machines?
This question is semi-valid. Each method of exercise has certain pros and cons, but the question that should be considered is whether you personally are better suited to use free weights, machines, or a combination of the two.
A lot of this will come down to personal preference, however I will explore the positives and negatives of each, as well as the positives and negatives of using either free weights or machines exclusively, over the other.
Free Weights and Machines Defined
Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and anything that you use by picking up. The exercise involves you lifting one of these objects against gravity, which is where the resistance lies.
Free weight exercises can be performed while standing, lying on a bench, or sitting on a bench (barbell curls, chest presses, seated shoulder presses, etc.)
Machines include anything you sit in, or on, that involves you pulling or pushing a lever through a specific range of motion.
Think of a shoulder press machine or a leg press machine; you sit on a bench and, after adjusting the weight levels, you grip handles and push the pulley through the set motion range.
All commercial gyms will have a collection of both free weights and machines, and most exercise routines involve a combination of the two.
The Pros and Cons of Free Weights
The most significant pro of free weights is also its most significant con: free weight exercises work more muscles at one time.
I mentioned barbell curls earlier, so let’s return to that example. Think about how you perform that exercise. You stand with your feet shoulder width apart, gripping your bar with your hands shoulder width apart. Then you curl the bar up to your shoulders and lower it back to the starting position.
In this simple motion, you are engaging so many more muscles than just your biceps. To hold yourself in place, especially if you’re working with a higher-than-normal amount of weights, your toes, ankles, calves, quads, core, and back are all engaged to some extent.
Additionally, by simply gripping the bar, your forearm and finger muscles are engaged in the exercise, as well as part of your shoulders.
Compare that to a bicep-focused machine, a preacher curl machine for example. With a preacher curl machine, you sit on a stool while your elbows rest on a flat platform, you set a weight, then grip handles and curl them up.
This exercise solely targets your biceps, which you’ll definitely know if you’ve ever tried out this machine. Preacher curls are quickly tiring, as no other muscles are engaged in the movement.
And therein lies the negative side of free weights; they don’t focus on one muscle.
If your biceps are feeling tired but you have another set of barbell curls, you can use your entire body to finish the set, which in turn results in you, at best partially completing a workout.
I know I’m a culprit of this – there have been times in the second half of the third set where you just use your full torso to throw that bar up to your shoulders, cause you just have to hit that magic number of 10 reps.
Machines effectively eliminate that possibility, which grants targeted workouts the potential for a lot more success.
In conjunction with that, nothing restricts your movements when your lifting free weights, which makes it a lot easier to exercise with a bad form and have absolutely no idea what you’re doing is incorrect, which can raise your chances of getting injured.
The Pros and Cons of Machines
With that, machines are potentially a lot better for beginners, as they are much easier to learn. If not immediately obvious, most machines have a little sticker on the insider with instructions on how to use them properly.
And because machines involve pushing or pulling along a track, it becomes really hard to do the exercise wrong, which hugely reduces your chances of getting hurt. If a beginner lifter tried to deadlift, there’s a high chance they are going to pull their back.
Machines, on the other hand, force good form, as they are designed so that there is simply no other way to perform the exercise.
Machines are also a good asset for someone who is recovering from an injury. If you broke your ankle, for instance, there’s nothing medically prohibiting you from getting a good bicep workout in, but you definitely can’t perform barbell curls.
You don’t have to pack up your string bag and head home though, because there’s a whole wall of machines that concentrate on your biceps or your chest, and allow your other body parts to relax while they sit in disuse.
Like I said earlier, I’m not going to say which one is better, because neither one is better’ than the other. It really falls into personal preference.
My Personal Preference
Personally, I like to use a combination of machines and free weights. My methodology, which I have found works well for me, is that, by using a combination of machines and free weights, I get to hit my targeted muscle group multiple times, with deepening levels of intensity.
For instance, I’ll start my bicep workouts with a set of pullups, which are a full body exercise, then move right into barbell curls, which are one of my favorite bicep exercises. The start of my workout engages my whole body.
After about 10 minutes, I’ll be fully warmed up and sweating hard, and that’s when I hit my preacher curls. By beginning with more full-body exercises, then specifically and powerfully targeting one muscle group, the result is that incredibly, painfully awesome soreness the following day.
In general, I would say that beginning lifters are better suited for machines, which allow their muscles to acclimate to the sensation of resistance training, while also allowing them to adjust and get used to the specific forms that are so integral to good lifting.
For more experienced lifters, I think something of a combination, depending on your personal circumstances, is always a good move.
Depending on injuries or prior workout routines and subsequent bodily fatigue, if you can manage to fit free weights and machines into your routines, you’re probably going to find that you’re getting a lot stronger, a lot faster.
Now if you’re the kind of experienced lifter that just loves full body workouts, I’d stick to free weights. If your routines target everything, there’s really no reason to waste an exercise on a specific muscle.
But regardless of if you choose machines or free weights, it’s enough that you’re at the gym at all. So long as you don’t get hurt, any workout is better than no workout.
I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.