- Recent studies find that machine and free-weight training is, in general, equally effective for building muscle.
- For strength and power, there is a degree of specificity where you improve the most in what you train, but both machines and free weights will increase your strength with both types of equipment.
- The choice between free weights vs. machines mostly comes down to your specific goals, personal preferences, access to equipment, and other circumstances.
Are free weights or machines better to train with?
Which makes your muscles grow faster? Which makes you stronger?
And does it make any difference if you are a beginner or an advanced lifter? Or if you are young or old?
While some may preach the superiority of one or the other, the truth is that free weights and machines both have their benefits and drawbacks that you should consider when planning your training.
In this article, you will learn of these differences and when one is better than the other.
(Spoiler alert: Most likely, the best answer for you will be to use a little bit of both!)
Table of Contents
Free Weights or Machines: What Is the Difference?
Let’s start by clearing the two terms up:
- Free weights refer to all kinds of training equipment that isn’t attached to something. The most common ones are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells.
- Machines refer to training equipment that is fixed in one way or another. For example, it could be weight machines for leg presses, leg extensions, or smith machines.
Most gyms have a combination of free weights and weight machines available, and both are popular tools for resistance training.
Free weight exercises seem to be slightly more popular than machine exercises, at least based on user data from our workout log app: 7 out of the 10 most trained exercises are free weight exercises (using a barbell or dumbbell).
But which should you use?
Let’s begin by looking at the pros and cons of each.
Training with Machines: Pros and Cons
Machines are often the beginner’s point of entry in the gym, and it isn’t hard to see why: in a machine, it is easy to do the movement correctly. Also, you will usually find a sticker or plaque next to the machine that explains how to use it and what specific muscles you will train, adding to the ease of use and perceived safety.
Benefits of Machines
- Easy to do it right. With its ease of use, a machine can be a safe place if you are a beginner, like training wheels on a bike.
- Less intimidating. If you are new at the gym, you may feel more comfortable using a machine rather than venturing into the open area of free weights. Starting with machines can be a great way to get acquainted with the gym.
- Stability. You won’t have to think about balance, which might make it easier to exhaust the muscle you’re training maximally. Also, the extra movement control might be beneficial, for example, if you are training around an injury.
Cons of Machines
- One size doesn’t fit all. Depending on the machine, you might be able to adjust some settings to match your body type, but few exercise machines fit everyone. A machine that does not suit your body may be uncomfortable or unsafe.
- Stability. Yes, it is the same bullet point as in the perk list since stability is a double-edged sword. Machines enable you to exhaust the working muscle without having to think about balance, but that also means you will not get the training of balance and control like when you lift free weights.
- Boring? Compared to free weights, machines are often perceived as somewhat more boring to train with. Maybe it’s an effect from not seeing as clearly that you are actually lifting something, and neither seeing as clearly that you are lifting more than the last time, besides the placement of a small pin.
Training with Free Weights: Pros and Cons
The free weights have stolen many lifters’ hearts. Free weights are classic training tools, and they’re simultaneously simple to use but take a lifetime to master.
Benefits of Free Weights
- One size fits all. With free weights, you are no longer restricted by the design of the machine. Sure, your body proportions will still make some free weight exercises harder or easier to perform, but you can move your body as you want or need.
- Real-life application. If one of your goals with training is to benefit from increased strength in real-life settings, then free weights will probably bring you closer to that goal than machines will. Whether you are playing sports or carrying a sofa, you will often have to take care of the stabilization yourself while simultaneously straining your muscles hard, just like when you lift free weights.
- Fun. Lifting free weights is very tangible. You can see and feel the barbell moving or that you’ve added another weight plate. Of course, everyone has their unique personal preference, but many experience free weight training as more fun than exercising in a machine.
Cons of Free Weights
- Higher threshold. A machine often has instructions on how to use it, but the barbell has nothing of the sort. Learning to train with free weights will require that you educate yourself on proper form and technique. Either by getting instructions from a personal trainer or someone or by doing the research on your own. We have a huge list of exercises with instructions for that purpose.
- Scary. If you are a beginner, free weights may seem intimidating. Not only can the risk of injury seem higher, but you may also (incorrectly and unjustly) feel like you are making a fool out of yourself if you don’t know how to perform a perfect deadlift from day one. Additionally, the free weights are often located in an open area, which might contribute to the beginners feeling of being watched.
- Instability. Sometimes stability is desirable, sometimes it is not. Training with free weights requires you to take care of balancing, which might detract slightly from the muscles being trained or force you to end the set before you have completely exhausted your muscles.
As you can see, both types of exercise equipment have their pros and cons. There are probably more than the ones I listed above, but those are some of the more prominent ones.
Now, let’s look at how the two types of equipment might suit different goals or groups.
Are Free Weights or Machines Better for Beginners?
Which should a beginner use: free weights or machines?
There answer is that it depends.
What are your goals, what is your training background, and are you going to teach yourself how to train, or will someone help you?
Some beginners might want to start their training journey with a program like the beginner barbell workout plan and start practicing the squat, bench press, and deadlift on their first day in the gym, but another might start with a month or two of machine training while they’re getting acquainted with the gym.
If you know right off the bat that you want to train or even compete in powerlifting, weightlifting, or Crossfit, then you might head for the free weights right away. But if you are more interested in building muscle, getting stronger, and healthier in general, then there’s no requirement to do so.
Thus, the choice of equipment is up to you, and there are no wrong answers. I started my training career using a little bit of both: I used some machines, and used free weights in the exercises I felt comfortable with, which is probably a good starting point for many.
In our workout log app, you will find lots of different training programs with either free weights, machines, or combinations.
- If you want to get started with barbell training, I recommend our beginner barbell program.
- If you prefer to start with machine exercises, I recommend our beginner machine program.
Free Weights or Machines for Building Muscle?
As we covered in our guide on building muscle, an exercise is effective for muscle growth if it:
- Trains multiple muscles simultaneously (these exercises are often called compound exercises).
- Works the muscle through a long range of motion.
- Is stable enough for your muscle power to be the limiting factor, not your balance.
Of course, you don’t have to work several muscles with the same exercise, but it is time-effective to use compound exercises as they will help you train all your major muscle groups more quickly.
If your choice of exercise meets the conditions above, then the exact type of equipment you use is of less importance.
Can you exhaust the targeted muscle in a long range of motion without pain or injuries? Great, then it’s a good exercise for building muscle!
An example of a bad exercise choice would be to stand on a balance ball and do squats if your goal is to build leg muscles: the more tired you get, the harder it will be to keep balance, and you will be forced to quit the set before your leg muscles are completely exhausted.
Training with free weights while standing on the ground is often stable enough for effective training for muscle growth, even if machines may offer an extra benefit as you can focus entirely on your working muscles.
A recent meta-analysis of thirteen studies comparing training with free weights vs. machines found that there were no differences in muscle growth between the two forms of training.1
Free Weights or Machines for Strength and Power?
The same things that make an exercise effective for building muscle mass are also applicable when it comes to exercises for building strength and power. However, there are some differences worth considering.
Strength and power are (to a large extent) very specific, and you will see the greatest improvement in the specific exercise or movement you train.
This happens primarily through neuromuscular adaptations, such as better coordination between muscle groups and more efficient recruitment of muscle fibers.
This means that the best exercise and equipment for increasing your strength or power depends on how you want to use said strength and power.
Generally, there doesn’t seem to be an advantage to either free weights or machines regarding training for strength or power – both seem equally effective.2
There seems to be a degree of specificity where training with free weights increases your strength in free-weight exercises more than in machine exercises, and training with machines increases your strength in machines more than with free weights, but training with both types of equipment will still increase your strength in both.1 3
Sometimes, free weights are proposed to be superior to machines when it comes to training for sports, but that is not always the case. For example: in one study, 27 young women trained either barbell squats (a free weight exercise) or hack machine squats (a machine exercise) for six weeks.
The two groups saw similar increases in strength, but the group that trained in a hack squat machine improved their power output in vertical jumps more.4
Which is the better choice depends on the specific sport and its unique requirements.
Free Weights or Machines for Seniors and The Elderly?
Strength training has been proven to have tremendous positive effects on people of all ages, including elders.
But should seniors train with free weights or machines?
The answer to that question is probably not determined by your age per se, but rather depending on other conditions, such as your balance, coordination, and your general attitude towards training – just like for anyone else!
There is no reason to exclude training with free weights simply because you’ve reached a certain age, that is for sure.
In one study, 32 men and women between the age of 60 to 86 years trained with either free weights or machines twice per week for 26 weeks.5
- The machine training group performed leg press, chest press, row, cable curls and tricep pushdowns.
- The free weight training group performed squats, bench press, barbell row, bicep curls and lying tricep extensions.
Both groups increased their strength, but the free weight group increased their leg and tricep strength slightly more.
Moreover, the group that trained with free weights rated the workouts as more fun and more useful in their everyday life, and they expressed more motivation to continue training after the study.
Free Weights or Machines FAQ
Let’s wrap up with some frequently asked questions regarding training with machines or free weights.
Do Machines Build Muscle Better Than Free Weights?
It depends on the specific exercise and the specific muscle group that we are talking about. A big benefit of machine training is the added stability, which let’s you fully focus on the target muscle.
Let’s say you want to add muscle size to your legs by training your quad muscle. One of the most classic free-weight exercises for building the quads is the barbell squat. On the contrary, one of the most popular isolation exercises for the quads is the leg extension machine.
In the squat, you continuously have to balance the barbell and your bodyweight, while simultaneously contracting your muscles hard and getting more and more tired.
In the leg extension machine, you are sitting down and moving the machine weights in a fixed groove, meaning that you can fully focus on your quadriceps. You could even train to complete muscular failure (the point where you can no longer lift the weight for one more repetition) if you want to; something that is considerably harder and more risky to do in the free barbell squat.
Of course, the leg extension machine won’t train your stabilizer muscles like a free-weight squat does, which once again shows the double-edged nature of this question.
Why Do Bodybuilders Prefer Machines?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all bodybuilders prefer machines over the use of free weights, but a lot of bodybuilders certainly do.
In most cases, this has to do with what we talked about in the previous section: resistance machines can enable you to target your working muscles better.
Bodybuilders generally are not concerned about how much weight they are moving, their athletic abilities, or “real life” application of their strength. They are interested in one specific goal, and that is adding more muscle mass.
When all other considerations go out the window and you only focus on muscle growth, a lot of machines are suddenly very useful, especially if they are a good fit for your body.
Read More: Bodybuilding vs. Strength Training
Why Don’t Bodybuilders Use Free Weights?
This is another common question that gets asked, and again: a lot of bodybuilders do use free weights in their training! Most bodybuilders probably use at least one free weight exercise in their training program, and many use more.
But to address the question: the reason that some bodybuilders shy away from free weight training and instead choose machines is because of what we’ve previously discussed regarding muscle focus, and also that they often don’t need the benefits of free weights.
Sometimes, weight machines are safer (or at least feel safer) than free weights, too. For instance, training close to failure in a free barbell squat compared to a hack squat machine or even a smith machine squat. If muscle growth is your only priority, you are free to choose the exercise that suits this specific goal the best, that feels best for you, and that you also believe is the safest option.
Read More: Smith Machine vs. Free Barbell Squats?
Can You Build Muscle with Machines Only?
Sure you can. But if you never give free weights a chance, you might miss out on one of the most enjoyable forms of strength training there is.
Here are some beginner-friendly training programs based on free-weight compound exercises:
- Beginner Barbell Workout Plan. 2–3x/week. Simple and effective, this training program gives you a perfect start in your training career. You will build muscle and strength swiftly by doing two to three barbell-based, whole-body workouts per week.
- Beginner Powerlifting Program. 3x/week. A simple but effective training program for the beginner who wants to get started with powerlifting or for the intermediate lifter coming back after a lay-off.
- StrengthLog’s Full-Body Workout. 2x/week. If you only have time for two short workouts per week, this is your program. The beginner can make good gains on this program, but it is more of a maintenance program for the intermediate and advanced lifter.
Here are some training programs that combine free weight exercises with machine exercises, which means you get the best of two worlds:
- StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Body Split Program. 4x/week. One of our most popular programs. Four workouts per week, emphasizing getting stronger in the compound lifts. For both muscle growth and strength gain!
- Bodybuilding for Beginners. 3x/week. Do you want to get started in bodybuilding? Begin your muscle-building journey with three full-body workouts per week!
- StrengthLog’s Full-Body Hypertrophy. 3x/week. Maximize your hypertrophic potential with this free full-body training program. Three days per week to sweet gains!
- PHUL Workout Routine. 4x/week. PHUL stands for Power Hypertrophy Upper Lower and is a popular 4-day workout routine that combines training for strength and hypertrophy.
Or, check out our full list of training programs here.
Free weights and machines both have their pros and cons when it comes to resistance training. Which is better for you largely depends on individual factors, such as your background, circumstances, and goals.
Both types of exercise equipment can be useful in different situations and for different purposes, and it is better to be open-minded and keep both tools in your toolbox than to definitely and unnecessarily close the door on one of them.
- Effect of free-weight vs. machine-based strength training on maximal strength, hypertrophy and jump performance – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2023 Aug 15;15(1):103.
- Medicina Sportiva Practica, Vol. 18, No 2: 21-39, 2017. A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE NATIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING ASSOCIATION’S OPINION THAT FREE WEIGHTS ARE SUPERIOR TO MACHINES FOR INCREASING MUSCULAR STRENGTH AND POWER.
- Free-Weight and Machine-Based Training Are Equally Effective on Strength and Hypertrophy: Challenging a Traditional Myth. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2023 Aug 2.
- Sports (Basel). 2019 Oct; 7(10): 215. A Comparison of Machine versus Free-Weight Squats for the Enhancement of Lower-Body Power, Speed, and Change-of-Direction Ability during an Initial Training Phase of Recreationally-Active Women.
- Exp Gerontol. 2019 Jul 15;122:15-24. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2019.03.012. Epub 2019 Apr 10. Effects of free weights and machine training on muscular strength in high-functioning older adults.