Free Weights vs. Machines – Which Should You Train With?

Should you be training with free weights or machines if you want to build muscle and strength? And does it make any difference if you are an advanced lifter or a beginner, or if you are young or old?

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 being barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.
  • Machines refer to training equipment that is fixed in one way or another. For example, it could be machines for leg presses or leg extensions, or smith machines.

While some may preach the superiority of one or the other, the truth is that free weights and machines both have their perks 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.

Training with Machines: Pros and Cons

Training chest muscles in a machine
The pec-deck! How many haven’t started their chest training careers here?

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 muscles you will train, both of which add to the lure and perceived safety.

Pros of Machines:

  • Easy to do it right. With its ease of use, a machine can be a safe place if you are a beginner, kind of like training wheels on a bike.
  • Stability. You won’t have to think about balance, which might make it easier to maximally exhaust the muscle you’re training. Also, the extra control of the movement might be beneficial, for example, if you are training around an injury.
  • Less intimidating. If you are new at the gym, you may feel more comfortable using a machine at first, rather than venturing out into the open area of free weights. Starting off with machines can be a great way to begin when you are getting acquainted with the gym.

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 machines fit everyone. A machine that does not suit your body may be uncomfortable or even unsafe to use.
  • 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 are lifting 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

Deadlift with free weights
If you’re going to compete in powerlifting, then training with free weights is a must.

The free weights have stolen many lifters’ hearts. Free weights are classic training tools, and they’re simultaneously simple to use but takes a lifetime to master.

Pros 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 exercises harder or easier to perform, but you are free to 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, carrying a sofa, or carrying around a small relative, you will often have to take care of the stabilization by yourself, while simultaneously straining your muscles hard. This you will practice with 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 own preferences, but many people experience free weight training as more rewarding and pleasurable than exercising in a machine.1 2

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 how to train. Either by getting instructions from someone or by doing the research on your own.
  • 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.

Moving on, let’s have a look at how the two types of equipment might suit different goals or groups.

Free Weights vs. Machines for Beginners?

Man training in a machine
This guy got to represent a beginner despite his well-developed biceps. That’s what you get for wearing wrist wraps when you’re training machine chest flyes.

Which is the best for beginners?

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?

Someone might begin their training journey with a program like Starting Strength, and starts practicing the squat, bench press, and deadlift their first day in the gym, but another might start off 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 and getting stronger 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 own training career using a little bit of both: I used some machines, and used free weights in the exercises I felt comfortable with, and that is probably a good starting point for many.

In our app, StrengthLog, you will find lots of different training programs with either free weights, machines, or combinations of them.

Free Weights vs. 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, and not your balance.

Of course, you don’t have to train several muscles in 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 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 working the muscle.

Read More about Building Muscle:

Free Weights vs. Machines for Strength and Power?

The conditions that make an exercise effective for building muscle are to a large extent also applicable when it comes to exercises for 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 that you train. 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 express said strength and power.

Generally, there doesn’t seem to be an advantage to either free weights or machines when it comes to training for strength or power – both seem equally effective.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 or hack machine squats for six weeks. The 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

The decision regarding the best exercise choice probably relies on more (or other) factors, that take the specific sport and its requirements into consideration.

Free Weights vs. Machines for Seniors?

Elderly senior man and woman training with free weights.

Resistance 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 in itself, 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 at all 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

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.

Read More about Training for Seniors:

Conclusion

Free weights and machines both have their pros and cons when it comes to resistance training. Which is the best 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.

References

  1. Effects of free weights and machine training on muscular strength in high-functioning older adults. Experimental Gerontology. Volume 122, 15 July 2019, Pages 15-24.
  2. Sport Sciences for Health. August 2018, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 283–288. Affective response to acute resistance exercise: a comparison among machines and free weights.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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