One of the most common questions that gets asked is, “are free weights better than machines?” Notice how people mention free weights first and not, “are machines better than free weights?” Could this be because most people already assume that free weights are better, but just want clarification?
The truth is, there’s no right or wrong answer. It depends on the individual’s circumstances and goals. In this guide, we’re going to explain in detail the advantages and disadvantages of free weights and machines.
Free Weights vs Resistance Machines
Probably most people would say free weights are better, but some would say resistance machines and some would say both. Our take on this is that, free weights generally are better than machines, however certain machines be equally as effective as free weights, such as a seated calf raise machine.
The reason for this is because calf raises do not have a wide range of motion, therefore the movement is very similar to one that’s done with free weights. However, if you compare the movement and muscles used for a chest press machine vs bench press with dumbbells, the latter has a wider range of motion and requires muscles to stabilize the weights, as well as needing to have the correct technique.
Therefore, for building muscles such as your chest, we’d argue that free weights win all day long. Don’t completely rule out using machines though, because it may be suitable for some people still. So now we’re going to go through the pros and cons of machines vs free weights.
Benefits Of Using Free Weights:
More effective for building muscle – If you’ve ever transitioned from using a resistance machine to free weights for the same muscle group, then you’ll without a doubt know the difference. The entire movement is more natural and requires more strength which in turn will work your muscles harder.
For those who are looking to gain strength, build muscle or transform their body into a more solid looking physique then free weights is the way forward.
Works stabilizing muscles – Whether it’s barbell benching, squats or even bicep curls, when you’re using free weights your muscles have to work hard to stabilize the weights. This will build those smaller muscles and strengthen your joints providing you’re not overdoing it.
For example, when doing squats with an Olympic bar, you’re working your quads, gluts and the supporting stabilizing muscles include your hamstrings, calves, lower back and abs. Whereas if you were to use the leg press machine, you’re working mainly your quads and gluts as a secondary muscle. Check out our guide to see how to get the most out of your home squat rack.
Wider range of motion – You will notice that when exercising with free weights, where the movement starts and finishes is a lot wider as opposed to doing that exercise on a machine. Since each rep will require a bigger movement, you’ll have a wider range of motion, therefore your muscles will work harder leading to more gains.
Different variations of exercises – There are plenty of different variations of exercises you can do, so you’ll never run out of ideas! One of the key factors to increasing your strength is to regularly change your exercises to give yourself a muscle shock.
Maximum potential is not limited – With machines, once you’ve reached the maximum weight stack, that’s it, the weight can’t be increased any further. On the other hand, with free weights but more so an Olympic barbell, you can keep adding weight plates on.
Fixed dumbbell sets can be quite limited in some ways too, but you can always buy a heavier set. Adjustable dumbbell sets offer more flexibility as there are quite a few different weight settings. Some even have expandable kits for when you’ve reached the heaviest weight setting.
Portability – Whether it’s a weight bench or free weights, it can usually be freely moved around, especially a fold up weight bench which can even be tucked under the bed! Having portability is particularly useful if it’s for your home use because you might have to train in a different area from time to time.
Cheaper than machines – Save some money if you’re planning to buy gym equipment for your home gym. Buying any equipment related to free weights such as dumbbells, barbells or weight benches will usually work out to be cheaper.
Disadvantage Of Using Free Weights:
More likely to cause injury – Usually due to poor technique and lifting weights that’s too heavy, people are more likely to injury themselves when doing exercises involving free weights.
To reduce the chances of injuring yourself, it’s best to stick to a very light weight until you get the technique right or ask someone who knows their stuff what you’re doing wrong.
Takes time to learn the proper technique – This ties in with the previous point, learning the proper technique does take time, especially for more complex exercises like dead lifts and squats. Most guys would be too quick to increase the weight for the sake of getting bigger, whereas really a lighter weight with the correct technique is far more effective.
May need a spotter when going heavy – Safety first, when you’re going heavy sometimes it’s better to be safe and ask someone to spot you, this can be a hassle for some people as you’ll need to find a good spotter.
In the gym there will usually be someone around who can spot you, but for those training at home there may not always be someone around. There are however, some benches such as the Marcy Diamond Elite which has adjustable safety bar catchers which will aid in catching the bar should anything go wrong.
Benefits Of Using Machines:
Better for beginners or elderly people – Since machines are easier to use, as it usually has instructions on it as well, it’s ideal for beginners just starting out who wants to strengthen their muscles before they move onto free weights. Also for elderly people whose muscles and bones are a lot weaker than what it used to be.
Only very few machines are good for certain exercises – Not many machines can replace good old free weights, however there are some machines that can be equally as beneficial.
Just to name a few:
- Seated calf raise machine can be as effective as calf raises with an Olympic bar.
- Hamstring curl machine can be nearly as effective as deadlifts. However, that’s based on targeting the hamstrings alone, as deadlifts works a whole load of other muscles too.
- Tricep rope pushdown on the cable machine can be as effective as skullcrushers.
Less crowded usually – In the free weight area in most gyms especially during peak hours, it’ll be so packed that sometimes you have to make sure you’re not going to accidently hit someone with your weights and vice versa. With machines, usually no one’s going to stand in your way.
Disadvantages Of Using Machines:
Gives too much assistance – With most machines you don’t have to use your stabilizing machines since the machine keeps the weights balanced for you, so half of the work is pretty much already done for you.
Movement is less natural – Unless it’s a cable machine, machines only allow the movement to go in one direction, without any swaying. Being able to only go in one direction is less natural as your body naturally wouldn’t follow the same movement if it was free weights. Try squatting on the smith machine and then try using an Olympic bar on the squat rack, you’ll notice the difference.
Requires more space at home – Machines take up a lot more space and it can’t easily be moved from one place to another, this will only be a problem if it’s for home use. Assembling the machine is usually more complex as well.
A mixture of both machines and free weights but more free weights will enable you to have a solid workout routine that will incorporate all your muscles. Only use certain machines though like the ones we mentioned above.
Using machines when starting off, whether you’re a complete newbie or more experienced but want to test a machine out before moving onto free weights is also ideal. Don’t think that it’s unacceptable to use machines though, as mentioned before, it really depends on what your goals are.