When creating a workout routine, there are many different types of exercises you can choose from.
Should you use free weights, machine weights, or bodyweight exercises? Should you use them all?
Today we will discuss the pros and cons of free weights vs machines and help you decide which one you need to use in your workout routine.
Welcome to the third installment of the WCT series on workout routine fundamentals.
- In Part 1, How Often Should I Workout: Determine Your Optimal Training Frequency, we discuss the optimal number of times you should exercise, and do cardio.
- In Part 2, 3 Amazing Workout Splits To Include In Your Training Schedule, we go over how to structure your workouts depending on how often you can go to the gym
We highly encourage that you read those two posts first.
In today’s post, we are going to cover
– Free weights vs machines: pros and cons
– Which one is better if your goal is weight loss
– Which one is better if your goal is bulking or building muscle mass
– The best machine exercises of all time
Alright, let’s begin.
Free Weights VS Machines: Which One Is Better?
The short answer to the question is: Free weights are better than machine weights almost every time.
When compared to machines, free weights are better for building muscle, losing fat and building athleticism.
There are only a few situations where you are better off using machines, but quite honestly, most of them are a waste of space and money.
What Is The Difference Between Free Weights and Machine Exercises?
First, let’s start with some definitions.
A free weight is any weight that is not fixed to an apparatus. You can move it in 3 dimensions and do anything you’d like with it.
Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells are all examples of free weights. You can push them, pull them, throw them and smash them.
Machine weights are different because they are fixed and cannot be moved past a certain range of motion.
Usually, you can only perform one type of exercise per machine. (Unless you have some total body Bowflex machine which markets itself as a total body circuit).
Examples of machine weights are tricep pushdowns on a cable machine, a lat pulldown machine, or a leg press.
You select the weight you want to lift with a pin and then the weight is connected to some type of cable/pulley system.
Almost every commercial gym has a wide range of both free weights and machine weights.
Now let’s compare each one head to head.
Free Weights Vs Machines: Pros and Cons
If you walk into any gym, you will see the majority of people using machines, and fewer people using free weights.
Why is this the case? Should you follow the majority or the minority?
Let’s begin the discussion with the pros and cons of each. We’ll start with free weights.
Advantages of Using Free Weights:
Free weights have a few obvious advantages over machine weights.
Free weights allow you to perform a much wider variety of exercises, they allow you to lift in your own natural range of motion, they are easy to scale, and they help build your stabilizing core strength.
Let’s go over each advantage in more detail.
Free Weights Allow for More Exercise Variety:
The first and most obvious advantage of free weights is their versatility.
Machines are the opposite. They generally are designed to train one specific exercise in a very specific manner.
An example might be the leg extension machine, which trains just your quadriceps in one plane.Â (Some exceptions exist, such as the smith machine, or a cable pulley machine).
Free Weights Allow For Natural Ranges of Motion
Everyone has a very unique body composition, which results in different movement patterns from person to person.
Free weights allow you to use your own natural range of motion. Just take a look at an exercise as basic as the squat.
You will not find two people who will squat exactly the same.
Everyone has different limb lengths, bone anatomy, joint restrictions, and flexibility. Just like snowflakes, no two squats are exactly alike.
Machines on the other hand, generally restrict the range of motion to one fixed path.
You can only move in the direction the machine has designated.
Free Weights Are Easy to Scale
Free weights are also very easy to scale.
You can increase or decrease the dumbbells you are using in 5 lb increments, and you can easily load or unload plates to a barbell.
Having 2.5 lb plates (or even 1.25 lb plates) makes it easy to micro load a barbell to the exact weight you want to lift.
Most machines make you select a weight from a weight stack that is attached to the machine.
Sometimes the weights jump by 5, 10 or 15 lbs. (*Some machines do allow you to use your own weights, but these are not very common).
In addition, you cannot compare the weights across machines. 100 lbs on one machine do not correlate to 100 lbs on another similar machine, nor in the free weight alternative to that exercise.
Free Weights Help Build Stabilizing Muscles
Because free weights are not attached to a fixed machine, they require you to stabilize them while you are performing your desired exercise.
This is especially true in large compound exercises such as bench presses and back squats.
The extra stability required to maintain the weights in the correct position improves your core strength, balance, and overall coordination.
Machines on the other hand usually require you to sit down or perform an exercise in a very fixed motion.
This removes the stability component needed during free weight exercises as the machine weight will always move in a specific motion, regardless of how you lift it.
Free Weights Take Up Less Space
If all you had was a power rack, a bench, a barbell, and some weight plates, you would have everything you need to do 90% of the exercises in the fitness library. This makes free weights ideal for home gyms.
On the contrary, one machine takes up a great deal of space and limits the number of exercises you can perform on it.
Advantages of Machine Exercises:
Okay, it seems like free weights are much better than machine weights so far. However, machine weights do offer some unique advantages over free weights.
Machines can provide stability for someone who is rehabbing an injury, they are easy to learn, they isolate muscles better than free weights and they have the potential to decrease your risk of injury.
Machine Exercises Provide Stability (Ideal for Injuries)
One of the main drawbacks of machine weights is that they remove the stability component required to build coordination and balance.
However, removing the stability component is useful in some situations.
Perhaps someone is dealing with a musculoskeletal injury that prevents them from performing free weight compound exercises.
Machines can provide a safe alternative for someone who needs to strengthen a certain muscle group or movement pattern during rehabilitation therapy while minimizing the need for other supporting muscles.
Machine Exercises Don’t Require Teaching
Learning how to properly perform functional exercises is difficult.
Not many people will be able to pick up free weights and execute squats or deadlifts with proper form. These are all skills that need to be acquired through practice.
Machines, on the other hand, have a very small learning curve.
In fact, there isn’t much to it. You sit down, adjust the machine to your body size and select the weight that you are going to lift.
If you cannot lift the weight, the machine simply goes back to its neutral position.
There is no need for a personal trainer. Each machine usually has a picture with a super straightforward description of how to use it.
This makes machines ideal for beginners who may be older and lack the mobility to perform free weight exercises.
It provides a good introduction to resistance training and lean muscle mass development.
Machine Exercises Can Decrease Your Risk of Injury
One of the biggest problems with exercise is failing to use proper technique when lifting.
If you had a plumbing problem, you probably wouldn’t try to fix your pipes if you knew nothing about plumbing.
You’d call a plumber right?
Fitness tends to be a different ballgame. Many people assume they know what they are doing at the gym, and never learn what proper technique looks like.
As such, many people suffer preventable musculoskeletal injuries because they perform free weight compound exercises with bad technique.
Machines (for the most part) eliminate this problem because you can only lift the weight in a certain manner.
(You have to be careful though, as all types of weight should be respected. Lifting too much weight on the machine, or doing it in a manner where the machine is not set up for your body mechanics can lead to injury.)
Machine Exercises Helps Isolate Muscles
This point ties back in with the first. Machines are designed to train one specific muscle group in a specific pattern.
This may be useful to you if you have an injury or you need to strengthen one body part.
Free weights usually tend to involve multiple muscle groups, no matter how hard you try to isolate a particular muscle.
Machine Exercises Are Easy
Lastly, machine weights are simply easier to use than free weights. They are less stressful to your body and much easier to recover from.
This makes machine weights great for lighter or recovery-type workouts.
Okay, now that we discussed the pros and the cons of free weights and machines, now let’s discuss which one is better for your specific goals.
Free Weights Vs Machines: Which is Better For Bulking/Mass
So of the two, which one is better for bulking/muscle building?
Both free weights and machines are effective at building muscle, however, free weights will help you accomplish this goal more efficiently.
This is because free weights allow you to train multiple muscle groups simultaneously while building total body strength.
Bulking up (or developing muscle mass) requires you to train the biggest muscle groups in your body. These include the chest and shoulders, the upper back and lats, and the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings.
You can strengthen and develop all of these muscle groups with both free weights and machines.
However, it is much easier to train all of these major muscle groups in less time with free weights.
Deadlifts, for example, is an exercise that trains the entire back and leg musculature all at once, while also strengthening the core and forearm muscles.
These compound exercises also release a great deal of muscle building hormones. No machine comes close to eliciting this kind of response from your body.
Can you bulk up and build muscle using just machines? Yes, but it requires a lot of machines, a lot more exercises, a lot more reps, and a lot more time.
In addition, you donâ€™t build functional strength, which comes from using exercises that require you to use your stabilizing muscles.
What About The Smith Machine?
Please do not use a smith machine in an attempt to do free weight exercises. The smith machine is a horrible contraption that tries to capitalize on the benefits of both free weights and machines.
The end result is a mediocre device that does more harm than good.
We have written about the smith machine and a bunch of other bad exercises at 9 Horrible Exercises You Should Never Do.
Free Weights Vs Machines: Which is Better For Weight Loss?
Are free weights better than machines for weight loss as well? It depends.
As we have mentioned time and time again, your diet will make up almost all of your weight loss success. Exercise plays just a small role in improving your body weight.
As you could imagine, free weights are the best way to increase your muscle mass quickly, and they are much better than machines for doing high-intensity interval training.
You could also use your own bodyweight for HIIT, which would be much more useful than machines.
The 5 Best Machine Exercises
It may seem like I am completely anti machines. I partly am, but there are certainly a few useful machines that you can use in your training.
In my opinion, there is one machine exercise that is better than its free weight alternatives. I personally think the Seated Cable Row is one of the best upper back exercises out there.
Otherwise, there are four other machines which are worth using.
The Best Machine Exercises
- The Lat Pulldown Machine
- The Leg Press or Hack Squat
- The Single or Double Cable Pulley Machine
- The Chest Press
The Bottom Line on Free Weights and Machines
Free weights are better than machines for building muscle, burning fat and improving your fitness.
With that said, free weight exercises are difficult to learn and can increase your risk of injury if they are not done correctly.
Machine weights are useful for beginners who have never exercised before, for anyone who may need extra stability, and to isolate a specific muscle.
To create an ideal workout program, you should follow an 80:20 split. 80% of your exercises should be done with free weights, and 20 percent with machines.
Now we turn it over to you.
Do you agree with our recommendations?
Do you primarily use free weights or machines?
Are there other machine exercises you would include on this list?
Comment below and let us know.
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.