Free weights vs. machines: which is best?

Free weights vs. machines: which is best?

4 min read

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19 Apr 2023


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  • Free weights vs. machines: what are they?
  • The benefits of free weights
  • The benefits of machine weights
  • Free weights vs. machines: which is best for you?
  • Weight training should play an essential part of your routine if you’re serious about muscle building, but we often ask:

    “Which is the best way to go: free weights or machines? 

    There’s certainly been plenty of discussion about this subject in gyms over the years, so let’s get down to it and see the real deal. 

    Some gym-goers prefer the free weights as they feel they are more in control of the exercise, whereas some prefer the stability of the machines. 

    We know the benefits of strength training - better balance, stronger bones and muscle-building- so it’s essential to know exactly what we achieve, no matter our training preference.

    Free weights vs. Machines: What are they?

    So, what are they both - for the avoidance of doubt, let’s define exactly what we mean by each of these. 

    Free weights are in the name - it’s a form of strength training where the resistance is formed by ‘free’ objects, i.e., not attached to anything. They include barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands and sandbags, among other things. 

    Anything you can pick up and move is a free weight (unless you are a Stoltman brother and pick up the squat rack). This means you can move it in many ways rather than being limited to machine movement. 

    Again, the machines are self-explanatory - they are bigger, bulkier and usually have some sort of dynamic movement that offers resistance via weight plates. 

    The benefits of free weights

    Man picking up free weights

    When we think about going to the gym, we automatically think of guys lifting weights and performing dumbbell curls, but what exactly do free weights have to offer us?

    They work more muscles.

    The primary benefit of free weights is that they work more muscles than machines, as you have a greater range of motion. This is down to mobility. For example, if you’re on a press machine, you’ll have a fixed range of motion, whereas, with weight lifting, you can work several of your muscles simultaneously.

    They burn more calories.

    A study published in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness showed that up to 50% more calories could be burnt on free weights than on weight machines. This increase is most likely due to the muscle stabilization of free weights, and more muscles are used, and therefore more calories are burnt. 

    You can get a full-body workout.

    You’ll be able to engage more muscles with free weights to work your whole body with the proper routine. You can get a full body workout in less time with free weights, as it’s a more natural workout, and it will work with your body composition and natural movement.  

    Less chance of injury.

    A machine can’t be tailored to suit every part of our body needing a workout, so using free weights means we have the freedom of movement to get a full workout without any restrictions. This means no matter how long and flexible our limbs are, we can use a full range of motion with free weights rather than in the direction the machine allows us.

    They are more versatile.

    You can vary your exercises with free weights, whether squats, presses, curls or deadlifts. There’s less restriction on what you can do, whereas machines are there for a specific exercise alone. 

    The Benefits of Weight Machines

    Weight Machines in the gym

    Weight machines look impressive, and even the thought of using them convinces us that with time and effort, these beasts will help us progress rapidly. So let’s look at the benefits we can reap by dedicating our time to these machines.

    They’re great for beginners.

    It’s important to state that weight machines aren’t exclusively for those starting, but they are great for learning about your muscle groups and getting into the swing of workout routines. Learning how to perform functional exercises properly isn’t straightforward, and it’s a great place to start before moving on to more complex routines and movements.

    They’re perfect when coming back from injury.

    When we get back into it after an injury, our movements need to be smooth and strong, so a weight machine is perfect for ensuring no sudden off-course movements. Machines are a safe alternative to free weights when rehabilitating, particularly when it comes to leg injuries, and it’s a great way to regain strength in your leg muscles without putting too much strain on them. 

    They’re great for targeting specific muscle groups.

    If you’ve got a particular section of your body you need to train, machines are perfect for that task; in fact, they’re designed for it. When using free weights, various muscle groups tend to be involved, but with weight machines, you can isolate a particular muscle group and work on that alone.

    Free weights vs. Machines: So which is best?

    The simple answer is that your personal fitness goals will determine the solution. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but that works in our favor. It means we can use both and utilize the pros of each to maximize our full potential.  

    When starting, coming back from injury or targeting specific muscle groups, weight machines are perfect. Free weights will get the job done if you want to work a broader range of muscles and get a full-body workout. 

    The trick is to avoid having a preference for either. Use both free weights and machines as part of your progression. 

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