Free Weights vs. Machines: Which Strength Training Tool Reigns Supreme?

When it comes to strength training, should you head for the weight rack or maximize gains with machines? 

April 5, 2019

By Stephanie Smith

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When it comes to exercise, strength training is essential. Overloading your muscles through resistance training and breaking down tissue only to rebuild stronger can help with everything from bone strength (by preventing the loss of muscle mass) to weight loss, balance, and heart health. With the recommended activity guidelines encouraging adults to incorporate least two days a week of strength training into their routine, adding weightlifting to your workout is a no brainer. 

But when you head into the gym to train, should you go for free weights or machines? We’ve compiled a list of benefits of both types of training to help you determine whether you should rack the weights or grab the pulley.  


Training With Weight Machines

  1. Technique Is Less Of A Concern
    Since there’s less focus on form and the movement is predetermined, weight machines are a great way for beginners to dip their toes into the strength-training world. “With weight machines, range of motion is fixed so there’s less room for error,” says Nick Cerone, Fitbod ambassador and coach at Raise the Bar Fitness. This means you can focus on form and make sure you’re engaging the intended muscle group without having to worry about the mechanics while balancing or stabilizing. “Take, for example, the dumbbell bench press,” says Chris Matsui, Fitbod ambassador and NYC Performance Training Specialist at Fusion Performance Training. “If you’re struggling to push through a rep, you may squirm or change the path of the weight. But, with a machine, you typically have one path.” 

    While machines are a great way to stay in your comfort zone while building mass, it’s important to make sure they’re set to your frame. “The machine has pre-set measurements which allow for quick use, but if it’s not set up correctly for a person’s height or size, it can have a negative impact,” Cerone says. 

  2. Resistance Is Easier To Adjust
    If you’re short on time and plan on implementing techniques such as drop sets—where you complete a set before dropping down in weight and completing more reps until a point of failure—machines could be the way to go. Changing a pin is quick and efficient, and eliminates the step of having to put away a bunch of dumbbells or pull plates off a bar. 

  3. No Spotter, No Problem
    As long as your machine is set up correctly, having a spotter isn’t essential. Targeting your quads on the leg press doesn’t require someone helping you out of the hole at the bottom of the movement, and going heavy on a chest press doesn’t mean you need someone to help you re-rack the bar. Still, it is important to self-monitor and maintain proper form in order to avoid the repetitive use injuries that can stem from fixed movements.


Training With Free Weights

  1. Functional Training Is Highlighted
    When it comes to functional strength training, free weights rank supreme. Engaging in movements that mimic the bending, balancing, leaning, and squatting needed in everyday life has benefits that transcend gym walls. Free weights force you to orient yourself in space and recruit stabilizer muscles. 

    “Any free motion will recruit more muscle groups than a fixed motion machine,” Matsui says. These movements also mimic real-life situations. Doing a squat with a barbell, for example, targets your legs but also forces you to engage your core and work on stability. That same movement pattern is one you’ll likely employ when bending down for groceries. Farmer’s carries—another functional training movement where walking with a weight in each hand works to overload the traps, strengthen the core and hips, and improve grip strength—match the movement pattern of carrying those groceries bags in the house. Functional training leads to gains both inside and outside of the gym. 

  2. Compound Movements Spell Calorie Burn
    Only have time for a quick gym session? Grabbing a barbell and hitting the bench, squat rack, or platform could be the way to go. Compound lifts are multi-joint movements that work several muscle groups simultaneously. Stressing and developing more muscles means torching more calories, and these free-weight movements are known for giving you results and intensity in a short amount of time.

  3. Training Can Be Done Anywhere
    From training at your home gym to having a pair of dumbbells in your closet, free weights definitely offer more options for strength training. “There’s so much more you can do with less equipment and space compared to a single-use machine,” Cerone says. 


The Verdict:

Both forms of resistance training have their place—it all just depends on your goals—but if you only have one option, reach for free weights. “While it’s great to use machines as a learning tool, free range of motion exercises with bars and dumbbells just do a better job,” Cerone says. “All Tier 1 and big-muscle exercises in Fitbod are free-weight focused for a reason—they give you the most bang for your buck.”