Welcome to the showdown of free weights vs machines. This is a topic nearly every lifter has discussed at some point. When working out in the gym, you will come across a huge number of different machines and free weights. Some lifters are using mainly free weights like dumbbells while others are using nothing but machines for achieving their fitness goals. But what is better and is there even one winner over the other? Let’s discuss that in this in-depth guide.
Both free weights vs machines are great ways for achieving your fitness goals. But which one is better? Before we discuss that, let’s take a look at both variations separately.
The definition of free weights is named as “a weight used for weightlifting whose motion is not constrained by external apparatus.”
Free weights are mainly used for sports such as weightlifting, Powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman and many more. Characteristics of free weights are weights that are grabbed with your hands, attached to a barbell or placed anywhere onto your body.
Some examples of free weights are:
- Weight Plates
- Medicine Balls
- Weighted Bands
These are the most common ways of using free weights.
The definition of machines is named as “any machine used for physical exercise.”
Characteristics of machines are weights that are attached to any machine without the possibility to take them and grab them with you. You can only use the at the machine they’re attached to.
Some examples of machines are:
- Leg Curl
- Lat Pulldown
- Smith Machine
- Pulley Machine
- Nautilus Machine
- Multi-Use Machine
These are the most common ways of using machines.
Now, as we’ve outlined the main difference between free weights vs machines, it’s time to talk about benefits of both variations before we decide which way is the best for you.
Pros And Cons Of Free Weights Vs Machines
Both free weights and machines have their pros and cons. To make the decision easier for your which of both you should use, let’s take a look at benefits and downsides of both.
Let’s start with free weights. The following is a discussion of the main benefits and downsides of using free weights.
Pros Of Free Weights
Work Functional Movements
Free weights give you a lot of room for training functional movements. These are movements you are doing a lot of times throughout the day, such as standing up, sitting down, holding something, open a door and much more. Check some more examples of functional movements here.
Use Full Range Of Motion
You can perform movements exactly as you want to or need to. You are not locked into specific movement pattern or ranges of motion. This will allow your body to move and that’s what your body is naturally built to do.
Focus On Stabilizing Muscles
You will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles when performing your exercises with free weights. This will help you to keep your joints fully operational and healthy, if done correctly.
Nearly all compound exercises (working multiple muscles at once) will be performed with free weights. You will be able to train much more effective while spending less time in the gym or at home working out. Three of the best compound exercises are deadlifts, squats and Turkish get-ups which are working nearly every muscle in your body.
Nearly Endless Variations
You are not limited in any way how you structure your exercise and your movements. Grab a pair of dumbbells and you can perform hundreds of exercises and variations which all activate different muscles.
You Can Train Everywhere
No matter where you are – if you have a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells with you, you can perform any exercise you like. This will allow you to put in your workout even when you are very busy and on the way very often.
If you don’t have access to a gym or you don’t want to pay for an expensive gym membership, you can perform your workout very inexpensively. A pair of dumbbells is quite cheap and you only pay once but you can train forever.
Cons Of Free Weights
Takes Some Time To Learn
Especially if you’re a beginner, you will need some time to learn all the proper techniques and movements done with free weights. Additionally, you may need someone showing you how it’s done. Take your time to do your research or reach out to a coach so that you can learn all important steps.
Greater Risk Of Injury
If done the wrong way, the risk of injury is higher with free weights. Using wrong weights or performing wrong movements will hurt your body in the long term so make sure to get it right before working out heavily with free weights.
Some Exercises Require A Spotter
Exercises like the barbell bench press are too dangerous to be performed alone. When pushing the weight and you run out of power, you need a spotter to help you put the weight back. That’s why you will need a spotter for some exercises or you have to look for alternatives.
Now, as we’ve learned the pros and cons of free weights in our great free weights vs machines comparison, it’s time to head over to machines.
Let’s head over to machines now. The following is a discussion of the main benefits and downsides of using machines instead of free weights.
Pros Of Machines
Easy To Learn
Machines are very easy to learn and very straight-forward. Nearly every machine has pictures and instructions with how to use this machine and what muscles are worked. The explanations are simple and very easy to understand so you can easily create your own workout routine.
Perfect For Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises (working only one muscle group at once) can be performed effectively by using machines. Your body is stable, and the movement is fixed so you can focus on training with heavy weights more effectively.
Train Heavier Without Assistance
Even when you’re working out alone, you can train with heavy weights on chosen machines. Especially for beginners this is a huge advantage as you don’t have to focus on your form that much, but you can focus on pushing your muscles to their maximum level. Even though correct movements are always very important, machines make it easier for you to perform the right movements automatically.
Useful For People With Injury
Machines make it easier for you to start training again when you’re recovering from an injury. You can perform safe movements with low weights and slow movement patterns to get back into working out again safely. Additionally, it can be beneficial for elderly people for similar reasons.
Cons Of Machines
Not That Functional
The pro of free weights is a con of machines here. As you are not able to vary movements performed with machines, you won’t train you functional movements that much. If your goal is becoming better at functional movements, you should avoid training with machines too much.
Stabilizing Muscles Are Neglected
Nearly all machines provide you with isolation exercises. If your aim is focusing on these movements, that’s good, but in general, this is a downside. You are neglecting all your core muscles and stabilizing muscles that are important for your daily activity and overall body health. In the long term, you may risk chronic injuries or poor posture.
Higher Risk Of Injury If Done Wrong
If you are putting on too much of weight without learning the proper form, you are risking bad injuries. Even though machines are considered safer than free weights, people tend to use too heavy weights when performing their movements. Proper form is very important so take a step back with the amount of weight you load onto the machine.
You Can Easily Run Into Rush-Hours
Machines are more famous for the average gym member. That’s why during peak hours nearly all machines are being used so you have to prepare for more waiting time until you can use the machine. You will need more total time in the gym when focusing on machines only.
These are the main pros and cons of free weights vs machines. Let’s sum up now who should use free weights and who should use machines for their workouts.
Free Weights Vs Machines – Which One Should You Use?
Who Should Choose Free Weights?
Free weights seem to be the best option for most of the people as you can create a highly effective workout routine easily with lots of variations. Functional strength is very important, and this is achieved mainly with free weights.
Athletes in different types of sports need to train mainly with compound exercises to strengthen all muscles in their bodies. They have to train with heavy weights and different movement patterns, and this is achieved best by combining free weights with bodyweight exercises.
The number #1 goal for bodybuilders is getting bigger and stronger. This is mainly done by using free weights instead of machines. The focus should be set to compound exercises here which are not really possible with machine workouts. You can still add some machines but the main workout should be done with free weights here.
Strengthening Your Bones And Increasing Your Overall Health
This is achieved by performing core workouts and functional workouts which are done with free weights. You shouldn’t focus on building visible muscles only but also on improving your overall health and bone density.
Who Should Choose Machines?
If you’re new to fitness & bodybuilding, we recommend you start with machines to learn the basics of this sports and to perform your first exercises very safely. It’s quite simple to learn and you can start building your way up from there.
Yes, it’s bodybuilders again. 😊 As a bodybuilder, you will achieve your best results by focusing on 80% compound exercises and 20% isolation exercises. For the isolation exercises, you can choose machines instead of free weights as machines let you focus on performing heavy sets without neglecting the correct form.
Lifters Who Work out Alone
In general, even lifters who work out alone can use free weights. But for the safety aspect, you should give machines a try. You don’t need a spotter helping you out and most of the time, you don’t need a coach when working out with machines.
The Final Verdict
Both free weights vs machines have their pros and cons, so what’s our final verdict now?
Our winner is: Free Weights (With Some Notes)!
Yes, when comparing all pros and cons, our winner is the use of free weights vs machines. But what do we have to mention here?
There is no clear winner for everybody and for every level of fitness. And there is no situation we will say “Use free weights only” or “Use machines only”.
You will achieve your best results when:
- Focus mainly on free weight exercises as the overall comparison selects free weights as the narrow winner.
- Perform your compound exercises with free weights and add some machines for isolation exercises (if needed). This is what most of the successful lifters out there are doing.
- Don’t stress too much about free weights vs machines. There are more important factors, which we will outline below.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your goal, fitness level, body composition, personal preferences, limitations and much more so there are more important factors than the general battle of free weights vs machines.
What Is More Important?
No matter if you’re working out with free weights or machines, there are some steps to take to get the most out of your workout routine and nutrition plan. If you get the following factors right, it’s really up to you if you prefer working out with machines or free weights.
So, here’s what really matters:
Overall Workout Routine
You have to create a workout routine that focuses on all important muscles in your body. At the same time, it must fit into your weekly schedule so you can make sure to perform these workouts on a regular basis. If you don’t know how this is done, check our workout routine guide here.
Compound exercises are way more important than isolation exercises. That’s why we have chosen the free weight exercises as the narrow winner here. Compound exercises are working multiple muscles at the same time and they also strengthen your core & overall body health.
Nutrition & Diet
Muscles are built by using protein. Therefore, a healthy diet with enough protein is vital for long-term success. We’ve created a step-by-step guide for you to show you how you can create your personal nutrition plan for best possible results.
Warming-Up & Cardio
Before hitting a heavy gym session, it’s vital to have a proper warm-up routine in place. Additionally, you should add some cardio to your workouts if your main goal is losing bodyfat. For both goals, you want to check our sprinting & cardio guide here.
Patience & Discipline
Finally, building muscle and losing bodyfat takes time. Discipline and patience are very important as you have to perform your journey with realistic expectations. Don’t give up too soon, give yourself and your body enough time to develop and – most importantly – enjoy the process.
It’s all about having fun reaching your goals because if you don’t enjoy the journey, you are going to give up too soon. Set realistic expectations, create your personal workout & nutrition plan and prepare yourself to reach for the stars.
That’s it. I hope you’ve learned a lot within this free weights vs machines guide and I hope you will reach all your fitness goals.
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