In almost any gym you’ll see a combination of free weights and machines for various exercises. Some people use only free weights, others move from machine to machine, and some combine both to optimise physique. This creates the question: Which is better for you?
Free weights vs. Machine: The Debate
When it comes to what is better, I think it’s easiest to say that depends on the person and his goals. Actually, exercises that are good for some people may not be appropriate for others. Let’s look at the pros and cons of both types of approaches and which is more suitable for you.
Easy to learn and use – Most machines have a picture that shows how to use it, which is not very difficult to apply. This makes them easy to use alone or with other machines to do your workout. You can easily understand how to use it by looking at the other users too.
Isolate muscle groups more effectively – as your body is quite stable on most machines, you can target larger muscle groups more effectively. This is beneficial for people with a solid base and wants to improve their physique and making bigger muscles. This may be a preferred method for some bodybuilders.
It allows training with heavier weights without help – if you are inexperienced with proper techniques in use of free weights, you’d struggle to add extra weights and use proper technique. Some machines allow you to add extra weight without risk of injury. This can be useful if you do press or squat without someone to protect you. (Note: The correct technique is the most important thing before you start adding additional weight. Train wisely.)
It may be useful for elderly and individuals with specific conditions – For beginners or recovering from an injury, machines may be the perfect tool to increase strength quickly and safely. Using isolating machines makes easier to train, avoiding specific traumas.
Not functional – Although the machines can make you bigger and stronger, they do not fully mimic the human movements that are needed – to move around. Perhaps the worst machine in this regard is the Smith machine. It ‘locks’ you in one place when doing squats and presses and actually can’t be adjusted for different types of bodies, which is a recipe for disaster. The machines are simply not ideal for strength and tone for your daily activities, not to mention the athletic ones.
Ignores the small stabilising muscles – After isolating the targeted muscle groups many important stabilising muscles around the joints remain little or not at all involved. If you ignore them for too long your risk of chronic injury and poor posture are increased.
Can cause injuries directly or indirectly – Although they are easier to use, it is still possible with heavier weights and poor form to cause serious injury. Overload particular movement every day is an easy way to bring trauma. The form is important and as with everything else, it’s all comes to quality and quantity!
Constantly unavailable at peak hours – If you’ve ever practised in the commercial leisure centre during peak hours, you may have noticed that every machine there seems constantly occupied. Instead of waiting for someone 20 minutes to finish presses you can head to the free-weights.
Who should use machines?
Beginners – Someone who is too new in the gym and did not know how to use most free weights. Although there are pictures of the machines, I recommend you to ask the gym assistant for guidelines.
Bodybuilders – When size and aesthetics are your main objectives is very efficient to use machines to pump those muscles! For better well-shaped physique I recommend a combination of machines and free weights.
Rehabilitation – The machines can be an easy way to recover from injury if you do not have a physical therapist or trainer to work with you. When you feel better, perhaps a better option would be to target body weight exercises and take actions against future injuries.
It allows you to train functional movements – Generally, free weights and exercises with own weight can be referred to what you do in your daily life.
You can use the full range of motion – You have complete freedom to move around, instead of being ‘locked’ into a specific range of motion or model. This allows your body to do its best – to move.
Engage more stabilising muscles – Using free weights will activate more stabilising muscles while you exercising. Thus tendons will be more healthy and fully be working when you exercise properly!
More results per unit of time – If you have limited time to train and if you want to achieve a lot with a little exercise, then free weights are for you. My 2 favourite exercises are the deadlift and the squat. Pretty much all muscles in your body are involved when performing them.
Allows an infinite variability – machines restricts in terms of a range of motion, type of movement and resistance. With free weights, all you need is a dumbbell and you can make hundreds of variations of exercises.
Training everywhere – train with free weights allows you to train anywhere. Whenever you go somewhere you can carry with you resistance bands or TRX in your pocket and make a quality workout.
Cheaper – You can buy second-hand free weights very cheap and can train at home or outdoor whenever you like. It’s not only cheaper but convenient too!
Free weights require basic knowledge on how to use them – exercises with free weights have a higher learning curve compared to machines and you will need someone to show you the proper technique. Using a coach to tell you about it or reading a book on weight training are options for you. Take the necessary time and try to avoid creating bad habits by imitating other people who have the bad technique (e.g. Youtube).
Greater risk for injuries from improper execution – doing some exercise with the wrong technique is easy to move a body part or tendon from the correct position and create problems. This may bring serious injury, so make sure you know what you are doing.
You may need a spotter when lifting heavier weights – Some exercise is difficult to improve if you do not have a partner with whom to exercise. This can slow your progress. In the worst case, you can ask the gym assistant to spot you on. There is nothing wrong to ask for help.
Who should use free weights?
Most people – Almost everyone can benefit from the use of free weights. When performed properly you can build a strong and lean body. It is important to build functional strength and muscle to be able to do things that you like and stay active in the later period of life!
Athletes – In order to compete at a high level and minimise injuries the athletes have to move in a synergistic manner and the best way for this to happen is to train that way. A combination of free weights and bodyweight exercises is a great way to do so.
Bodybuilders – The best way to become great is to become stronger and the best way to do that is free weights. Once you build your strength, you can add multiple machines to isolate and build specific muscle groups. I recommend to an emphasis on free weights, but it’s ok to add some insulating machines in your routine!
Rehabilitation – Free weights can speed up your rehabilitation, adding several functional movements to get moving and feel better. They can also help you get back to the form before the injury much faster in comparison to the machines.
Free weights vs. Machine Recommendations
When I train for strength, I prefer to use basic multi-joint exercises with free weights. That focus on compound movements and overall body strength. Nevertheless, from time to time I would add a biceps curl machine for a variety of my programs.
I hope the article can help you decide what is best for you. However, whatever you choose should be based on your goals and what it makes you feel better. Isn’t it that what matters the most?