Free Weights vs. Machines: What You Need to Know

This guest post about free weights vs. machines was created by Seth Rose on behalf of First Rate Fitness.

Free Weights vs. Machines?

One of the biggest debates is between free weights and machines—and which is better? While both do a good job at hitting muscles, they each have their own benefits and downsides. We will explore the pros and cons of each method in this article.

Free Weights – Pros

Here are a few reasons why you should use free weights:

  • Builds Stabilizers

When you lift dumbbells, you may notice that you can struggle a bit to keep the weight balanced. This is because the dumbbell is not traveling on any specific plane, and it’s the body’s job to keep everything in line. To do this, your body uses ‘stabilizer muscles’.

Stabilizer muscles are a bit different than what we normally think of as muscles. Unlike the biceps or pectorals, stabilizer muscles aren’t worked by a specific movement pattern. Rather, they’re activated when you use free weights, to keep the weight in place.

This is important because in the long run, your stabilizer muscles should grow along with traditional muscle fibers. If they don’t grow, then you’re risking injury.

  • More Weight

The deadlift, squat, and bench are all big compound lifts that allow you to move hundreds of pounds. Machines are usually much more limited, and the weight is harder to measure.

When you’re body lifts more weight, it goes under more (good) stress, which leads to more long term gains in size and strength.

  • Bang For Your Buck

Only have 30 minutes for a workout? Then using machines won’t cut it as they’re not time efficient. Machines only target one muscle at a time, meaning you’ll have to make your way around the gym. Compound exercises, on the other hand, allow you to target multiple muscle groups at once.

  • Variation

Take an exercise like rows. You can do rows with barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, supine grip, neutral grip, standing lying etc. Not only does this allow you to keep things interesting, but it also allows you to hit your muscles from a variety of angles, tapping into the different muscle fibers in the body.

  • Any Gym

Let’s say you have your favorite chest machine at your local gym. But you find yourself out of town without the machine—what to do?

With free weights, you can find them at any decent gym. Because a bench press is the same as a bench press anywhere you go!

  • Less Expensive

If you’re setting up a home gym, then machines are virtually out of the question/ They’re just too expensive and take up too much space in your home.

P.S: Just look how cheap barbells and dumbbells are online.

Free Weights – Cons

While free weights are fantastic, there are definitely a few drawbacks:

  • You May Need a Spotter

When lifting heavy weights, it’s in your best interest to use a spotter. Although you don’t want to lift more weight than you could actually handle, there’s always the risk that something goes wrong. If you train at home alone, then you can’t have a spotter, thus putting you more at risk to injury.

  • Hard On Joints

Heavy compounds like the barbell squat can put a lot of pressure on the knees. And for people with prior injuries, that’s a no-go.

Machines – Pros

The benefits of machines are often the solution to the downsides of free weights. Here are a few:

  • Isolate a Particular Muscle

When doing a heavy bench press, a lot of trainees have a hard time hitting their chest. Because the weight is so heavy, and the weight is not on a fixed plane of motion, it can be hard to focus.

Using a machine, say a chest press machine, allows you to focus specifically on that individual muscle group. This is because the weight is on a fixed movement path that is specially designed to activate the targeted muscle group.

  • Good Form

It can really make you cringe to see people in the gym use poor form. Not only are they not activating their muscles, but they are risking injury, especially with exercises like rows and deadlifts. While these are good movements to build muscle, a lot of people don’t get the most out of an exercise because of poor form. Again, machines are designed to hit the target muscle.

This also means that they’re easy to learn how to use (if you even need to figure out how). Simply read the instructions, sit or lie down on the machine, and go!

  • Good for Rehab/Bad Joints

Depending on your age, prior training experience, injuries, and other factors, lifting heavy free weights are not for everyone. Machines allow people to still train their muscles intensely, without risking physical aggravation.

P.S: This is the best thing I’ve found for joint pain.

Machines – Cons

And some of the drawbacks:

  • They’re Too Popular!

If you ever go to the gym at peak hours, you’ll notice that the machines are always taken up. There may be people even waiting to use it.

The free weight section gives you much more room to move around without having some sweaty old man breathing down your neck.

  • Unnatural Range of Motion

When it comes to machines, not all exercises are created equally. While machines often make it easy for people with injuries to work out, a lot of machines may cause pain if used long term. Additionally, a lot of machines are just plain ineffective because they can’t naturally target muscle groups.

For example, the Smith machine is tempting to use for many trainees. However, when it comes to squatting, the smith machine it should be avoided. The range of motion is very unnatural and additionally, it can put a lot of pressure on the knees.

So, Which is Best? Free Weights vs. Machines

As we’ve just shown, both free weights and machines have their unique benefits and downsides. Therefore, for a complete workout and to see the best results from weight lifting you should utilize both.

A good way to approach this would be to start with a free weight, compound exercise like the bench press. Then after you’ve completed the desired amount of sets, you can move on to a machine like the pec-deck or a conventional chest press machine.

That said lifters, especially novices, would stand to gain more from free weights. They simply are more effective at total muscle growth, and should be put first and foremost.

No matter what type of weights you use, make sure to foam roll.

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Jake D

Travel junkie turned blogger. Location independent. From the Midwest, but often based in Latin America. Big on beaches, rumba, and rum. Addicted to the gym. Committed to showing a different style of travel - one that involves actually interacting with locals and exploring different cultures.

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