Free Weights vs. Machines: Pros and Cons 
You’re warm and ready to get into your lift--maybe you’ve spent ten minutes biking to the gym, or you’ve just hopped off the treadmill--what’s your go-to first stop? Do you wander over to your favorite machine, place down the towel and set your weight with a pin? Or do you walk confidently into the heavy land of plates, barbells and dumbbells?
To be perfectly honest, the debate between free weight and machine resistance training isn’t really a debate. There’s no single winner. Which is why discussions on the topic tend to end in the same conclusion:
A little bit of this, a little bit of that. It’s all about balance.
While I agree with this conclusion, to a point, I want this post to firmly differentiate itself from that kind of wishy-washy, vague, everyone’s-a-winner language. Strength training is one of the best things that you can do for your health, but it’s damn hard to keep up a consistent routine. There are about a thousand reasons for people to fall short, quit on a workout program, cancel their gym membership, or lose motivation; and it only takes one of these detractors to hit home for all of the damage to be done.
That’s why it’s important to be both realistic and practical when we talk about these topics. When it comes to free weights versus machines, let me be clear: One method really is better than the other, even though they both have strengths and weaknesses worth noting.
- Free weight exercises should make up the bulk of your lift;
- Machines are better at isolating muscles, free weight are better for functional strength; and
- There is always a free weight alternative to your favorite machine exercise.
The above points are a few guidelines for healthy, sustainable workout goals. Whether you are there now, or working your way up to it gradually, these are markers to keep on your horizon.
This post will go through the free weights vs. machines pros and cons, along with telling you what they are and how best to incorporate each into your workout.
Free Weights Training: This method involves lifting objects against the force of gravity as a means of growing stronger. That includes anything from barbells to dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls and weighted plates.
Machine Training: This describes any form of exercise that you find yourself ‘operating’. Usually, this means sitting in, on top of or beside a machine which has you move weight via levers or pressurized air. The movement of the machine is pre-determined, allowing you only to move the weight in a particular direction and range.
Benefits of Free Weights
Free weights exercises are where you’ll see the real gains to functional strength. My firm belief is that everyone should feel comfortable lifting free weights where possible; if you have a favorite machine, I would suggest finding a free weight equivalent to add to your toolkit. That doesn’t mean you need to stop with machines--but learning the free weight alternative will expand your range and benefit you in the long run.
Here are 5 big Pros for free weight training.
#1: Train Functional Strength
Functional strength is what will make you a strong human being in practical, daily scenarios. It’s strength that can be translated and applied to real life; like helping a friend move his couch up three flights of stairs, unscrewing that impossible pickle jar lid, or even improving your flexibility to the point that you can tie your shoes while standing. This is the biggest factor distinguishing free weight exercises from machines. While you can be working the same major muscle groups with both methods, free weights will incorporate an array of associated and supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments--supporting acts that aren’t needed on machines. This improves overall balance, muscular control, and lets your muscles be stronger at a variety of different angles.
#2: Burn More Calories
Free weights necessarily draw on more muscle groups than machines. This can be both a good and bad thing (it’s why I recommend doing machine lifts at the end of your lift, when some muscle groups will be fatigued). The up side of this is that you are burning a whole lot of calories that you wouldn’t be on the machine. When you squat with free weights, for example, not only do you activate your quads, hamstring, glutes and inner thighs; you need to engage your core, shoulders, and maybe even your arms (depending on how you are holding the weight). That’s a full body workout, one that will get your heart rate going--so that even between sets, you’ll be burning calories while you ‘rest’.
#3: Exercise For Your Specific Body
When you lift free weights, there are no limitations or restrictions on how or where you can move the weight. If you’re tall, short, flexible, stiff, wide-framed or skinny--you just move in your body’s natural range. This is the best way to exercise, but it does take some training to ensure that you exercise with the right technique. Take ‘reverse flys’ as an example. Shoulders are a complicated structure, and can have pretty particular limitations and flexibilities. When you perform reverse flys with free weights and the right form, your body is moving in its natural range, activating the muscles in your back, neck and shoulders. On a reverse fly machine, the machine dictates your range of movement. You might be able to shift the seat up and down based on how tall you are, but it’s very rare that the machine will capture your body’s natural shoulder rotation perfectly.
#4: Build Your Repertoire = Less Waiting Around
Think of those times you’ve spent 20 minutes waiting for a machine to free up. You wander around the gym aimlessly, maybe jumping on another nearby machine that you don’t really want to, but feel that you should be doing something while you’re waiting. By building your free weights repertoire, you just give yourself another degree of freedom. Every machine has a free weights alternative (or several), and it’s worth the effort to learn what these are and how to perform them with good technique.
#5: Increase Your Gym Confidence
I mentioned in my intro that any trick to help keep you motivated is worth its weight in gold. In my opinion, learning how to lift free weights with good technique boosts your gym confidence, allowing you to feel closer to the ‘gym collective’. It feels good to back squat with good form, to push around real weights and feel comfortable doing it. It may sound like a small thing, but psychologically: If you are more confident in the gym environment, you will be more likely to come back for another session. Since regularity of training is one of the most important factors in a healthy workout routine, this is a big reason for leaning toward free weights and increasing your gym knowledge.
Benefits of Machines
#1: Easier To Operate:
The downside of increasing your free weights repertoire is that it takes time and effort learning how to do each exercise. You need to practice technique with light weights for a week or so to get used to it (depending on the exercise, possibly longer), so it will be at least a few weeks before you are really lifting heavy enough to make big strength gains. Machines are the frozen TV dinner of the exercise world. Pre-processed and ready to go out of the package, all you need to do is read the instructions on the side and get to work.
#2: Safer For Beginners
While I don’t think that free weights needs to be dangerous at any stage, for beginners or experienced lifters alike, machines eliminate some of the risks associated with free weight exercises. Things like barbells not being racked properly, dumbbell falling on toes or over-exerting your lower back on a deadlift with bad form. The rigid nature of machines necessarily limits your range of movement--while this is a negative point for getting the most out of your body’s natural range, it’s a plus for safety since all of the moving parts are contained and controlled. That being said, it’s definitely still possible to injure yourself on a machine (but we’ll talk about that later).
#3: Target Specific Muscles
The big winner for machines is their ability to focus in on a single muscle. When we use free weights, it can be difficult to isolate just the one muscle. Any time we perform an exercise while standing, for example, we are naturally using many muscles in our core and lower body to balance ourselves throughout the movement. On the other hand, when we’re securely seated in a bicep curling machine, we are able to complete isolate the bicep muscle and focus solely on the contraction. This is why bodybuilders will often use machines to work on building aesthetically full muscles--without really over-exerting themselves or tiring themselves out, they can perform a full workout isolating specific muscles and toning their physique as desired.
#4: Work Your Muscles in A Larger Range
Generally speaking, machines are able to keep specific muscles working through a wider range than free weight exercises. Again, take the bicep curl. When you take two dumbbells and use the force of gravity as your exercise stimulant, at the very top of the curl you don’t need to exert much force to beat gravity. On the machine, however, the weight itself only moves up and down--you are battling a constant battle against gravity, from the bottom of the curl all the way to the very top. With enough knowledge and training, there are always ways to alter and increase the range of any given free weights exercise--usually, however, it is much easier to get your muscles working in their full range by using a machine.
Some External Factors
While I’m clearly in favor of free weights over machine training where possible, there is a real emphasis on where possible. Depending on your gym, your current limits and gym knowledge, it may not be possible to lift only free weights. If you aren’t comfortable squatting your bodyweight on the back squat, then it will be worthwhile stacking some plates on the leg press machine--so that you can still build up some strength without putting yourself in danger.
Gym layout: Who are your co-lifters at the local gym? After-office exercisers, who just want to hit a couple of machines and go home? Or do you find the free weights section is always busy, bustling with loud, intimidating gym rats? Depending on your gym’s layout, there may be a shortage of free weights, space or machines; this can also play a role in your workout.
Current gym knowledge: If you’ve only just started exercising regularly, or are just getting into strength training, it may be a good idea to start with some machine exercises. I personally believe that everyone can learn how to do any free weight exercise just by starting slow or doing the movement with body weight. But I also understand that this road doesn’t give much immediate reward--so if you want to hit a few machines in your first months of training, I think that’s perfectly reasonable.
Pros And Cons - Summary Table
Burn More Calories
Specific to Your Body
Requires some technical knowledge
Hazards (like badly racked barbells or plates)
Difficult to isolate single muscles
Easier to Operate
Better at Isolating Muscles
Safer For Beginners
Larger Working Range
Unnatural range of movement
Harder to burn calories
Free weights are where you’ll make the most gains, and achieve the greatest benefits to your health.
Machines serve as an ideal case for rehabilitation circumstances, end-of-session targeting exercises, or as a means to achieve aesthetic, bodybuilding goals. If you can work your way up to a workout that uses free weight exercises as its main course, then you can feel free to add some targeting machine exercises at the beginning and end.
Machines are also ideal for warming up your joints (leg extensions for knees, etc.), so adding some of these exercises at each end of your workout can be a really effective complementary method.
Yes, a combination of both is probably best--but that doesn’t mean they are equally important. Free weights are the big winner, and they should be your focus where possible. The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with various methods of exercising each muscles group, then plan your workout with the freedom to alternate between machine and free weight exercises at will.