Machine Exercises vs. Free Weights – Which is Better?

Becoming stronger requires you to do any form of resistance training. This can be accomplished in several ways.

Today I will be discussing the differences between machines and free weights.

Almost every gym has them: fitness machines. These allow you to do any exercise without having to pick up weight plates and all the rest.

It’s easy, right?

But what are the (dis)advantages when compared to free weight exercises? In this article, I will be giving my vision on these two forms of exercising.

 

Free Weights

The main advantage of free weights, is that multiple muscles are activated at the same time. The squat is one of the best exercises to do with free weights. It works the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the glutes, your core, your arms (as they hold the weight in place), as well as several stabilizer muscles.

This is called a functional compound movement.

Sure, all the aforementioned muscles can be trained with the use of machines. Do you want to train the quadriceps? Leg extensions are the way to go. Do you want to simulate a squat? Go for the leg press.

Now here’s the catch.

You’re not activating any stabilizer muscles with the use of regular machines. Machines are great for isolation exercises, but in order to become strong fast, I’d highly recommend using free weights.

Free weight exercises work more muscles and thus are more efficient.

 

The Ease of Use

Machines have one huge pro compared to free weights, and that’s the ease of use. Machines are dead easy to learn. There’s barely any ‘good form’ to get used to.

It’s convenient.

When you just start out in the gym, you probably don’t know anything when it comes to good form, repetitions and all the rest. This is a recipe for injury.

Back when I started working out, I only used machines for the first month in order to build up a bit of strength. Once I got bored, I started using free weights and never looked back.

I’m still thankful that I started working out with machines, because it prevented me from getting injured and it allowed me to grow to a level where I felt comfortable using free weights.

I did however bump my head against the jump in difficulty between machine exercises and free weight exercises, and that has to do with the amount of weight.

 

The Amount of Weight

This is an interesting one, and not a lot of people might think about this a lot. Let’s say you’re performing a 150 lbs bench press with a barbell. The weight you’re pushing is 150 lbs, right?

Now let’s say you’re on a chest press machine, and you’re going to push 150 lbs. Are you really pushing the full 150 lbs? Well, for most machines that’s not really the case.

Don’t get me wrong, the weight indicates that there’s 150 lbs, but you have to take in account that a lot of machines have pulleys and thus ‘lower’ the amount of weight.

See what I’m getting at?

This actually happened to me! Just before my transition to free weight exercises, I was able to do 150 lbs chest press exercises with a machine. I was convinced I would be able to do a 110 lbs bench press.

I was not.

This was such a huge kick in the teeth! I was working out 3 times a week with machines for a month, my results went up and up, and yet I wasn’t able to do a 110 lbs bench press.

For me personally, this was the perfect reason to never touch machines again, as they demotivated me quite a lot.

 

However…

There are actually machines that act a lot more ‘direct’, as you can literally put weight plates on them, for example a leg press machine.

Should your gym have any of these, I’d highly recommend using them rather than the ‘regular’ machines as they provide a more accurate indication of the weight you’re using, assuming there are no pulleys.

I personally use a leg press machine in my workouts every once in a while. I can hang any amount of weight on it, and when I perform the exercise, I’m 100% sure that the weight I’m pushing away with my legs is accurate.

Now, there is another group of machines that I haven’t really discussed, and that’s cable machines. I personally adore using these, as they shine where most machines don’t.

A cable machine is a machine that has a handle with a cord that’s attached to a weight stack. They do not provide a fixed range of motion, and thus have a lot in common with free weight exercises.

Keep in mind though, that even though the range of motion is great, you might still not be hitting your stabilizing muscles.

 

Range of Motion

The range of motion is one of the most important factors when it comes to performing exercises. The bigger the range of motion, the more effective your exercise.

Free weights offer all the range of motion you could ever want, as long as your muscles and joints allow it.

Workout machines however, mostly have a fixed range of motion. Not only that, but the movement you perform can be very static and ‘programmed’.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though!

Let’s say you’re tired after a few squats because your stabilizer muscles are fatigued. You can hop over to a leg press machine and train your legs nonetheless. Machines offer great fantastic supplementary exercises.

They are also a good tool for people that just went through an injury. Remember when I said that machines are good for isolation exercises?

This way, you can give weaker body parts some rest, while still working out.

 

The Time Under Tension

Another extremely important factor when it comes to exercises, is the time a muscle is being worked: the time under tension. You will want this to be as high as possible during your exercises, for obvious reasons.

Both machines and free weights offer you the possibility to hold the weight for as long as you would like.

There is however a slight difference that I’ve actually already talked about.

Free weights require, as I stated before, more stabilizing muscles to work.

This will pay off in the long run, as it forces multiple muscle groups to work together in order to perform an exercise.

The overall time under tension from free weight exercises is thus ‘bigger’, as your stabilizing muscles are also worked.

This is where machines fall short, as the movement they provide is fixed and are thus not as effective as free weights when it comes to training raw strength.

 

In Conclusion

Free weight exercises give you more bang for your buck, period. More muscles are activated in less time than with machines.

For example: 10 deadlifts vs. 3×10 leg press, 3×10 lateral pull down, 3×10 lower back extensions’ etcetera.

Note that these numbers are arbitrary, but it does go to show that way more effort is needed to get the same results. Thereby comes the fact that most free weight exercises are basically real life movements. Take for example the squat and the bench press.

Free weights require multiple muscle groups and joints to work together in order to perform an exercise. Therefore, free weight exercises are more effective when it comes to muscle growth and strength training.

However…

Machines do have their place. If you want to isolate a certain muscle, go and pick yourself a machine to exercise on. The range of motion is fixed, though, so you might not get as much out of it as you want. Still, machines are great for isolation exercises.

Keep in mind that most machines have pulleys. Let’s say you use 100 lbs and you master it on the machine. This than does not mean you can use the same weight with a similar free weight exercise.

It also has to do with the fact that machines don’t require any stabilizer muscles to be activated.

Note that machines are also a fantastic solution for people that are recovering from injuries, but also want to stay active at the same time.

On the topic of staying active: I believe that machines are also great for older people, as they offer a ‘relaxed’ way of working out.

Therefore, I find that fitness machines offer supplementary exercises, rather that raw strength exercises.

Cable machines are sort of the middle man here. They are still machines, but the mostly offer all the range of motion you want. This in turn gives better results from your exercises.

All in all, I’d recommend anyone that wants to become strong and build muscle to do free weight exercises. Should a muscle be lacking in strength, than there’s a machine for that.

I’d also recommend using cable machines as they allow for some great exercises, such as the cable flye for the chest.

I’d recommend the ‘regular’ fitness machine to those that are just starting to work out, as well as those that are recovering from injuries.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this article. Was this useful to you? How do you feel about machines and/or free weights? Do you have any questions?

Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to get back to you!

12 thoughts on “Machine Exercises vs. Free Weights – Which is Better?

  1. JAX Reply

    Hi dude, thanks for your writing. I am a newcomer to fitness, I have been paying attention to fitness articles and videos. I tend to use mechanics during fitness because my posture is not standard, so using machinery can help me exercise better. Today I learned a lot of Free Weights skills. thank you very much.

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      That’s great to hear, and I’m glad this article was useful to you! Even if you’re more likely to use machines during your workouts, you’re still getting stronger and you stay in shape. Definitely keep doing what you’re doing! 

  2. Son Reply

    I have always preferred to use free weights over machines, but I tend to do a mix of both. Although free weights work the stabilizing muscles and make you stronger, they are also tougher to handle and there is a bigger risk of injuring yourself. With machines they are very safe to use and there is no risk of dropping a dumbbell on your head or foot for example. 

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      This is true. With the use of more muscles comes a bigger risk of injury. This is why you should always take care when picking a certain weight. Good form is more important than big numbers and I believe you should always be in control of the weight you’re training with, instead of the other way around. 

      I have personally been injured once because of an exercise I did with a machine, though. The reason was that I was pulling too much weight without a proper warmup. So be careful, even with the more safe machines! 

  3. Strahinja Reply

    I can agree with you that machines are really good for building a specific set of muscles or just one. However, I personally prefer free weights as you can do them at home or in the yard. You are still set to a good shaping and if you are interested in getting more – you can always hit the gym.

    Awesome website.

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Thanks for the compliment!

      My personal preference lies with free weights as well, as you can use them in any way you like. Aside from free weights, I only use cable machines for certain exercises. The more ‘regular’ machines still have their place, though.

      Cheers!

  4. Liana Reply

    Hi Kevin,

    I enjoyed reading this post. I have been a long-distance runner for a long time, so it’s important for me to build muscle for my strength training. Thank you for explaining free-weighs vs. machine weight and even cable machines. It makes a lot of sense with everything you said. Free weights really do help to isolate and teaches you more control rather than the machine doing it for you. This will help me for the next time I get in the gym. Thank you!

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Hey Liana,

      I’m glad you found this article useful! Running requires a lot of effort not only from your skeletal muscles, but also from your stabilizing muscles as is a compound movement. Therefore it would make sense to perform compound exercises, such as squats and lunges in order to build muscle in the lower body area. Happy training!

  5. Asen Reply

    Hi Kevin,

    To be honest, I think both pumping methods have their benefits. It’s good to change the type of exercise too to shock the muscle every time. I heard that’s good for muscle growth.
    You give some really useful advice, thanks for the great insights.

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Hello Asen!

      I agree, both free weights and machines have their place. Shocking the muscles is also a great way to show them who’s boss and to stimulate hypertrophy and thus an increase in strength. Performing the same workout plan for months on end will literally bore your muscles, which results in less progress. Therefore, shocking the muscles with a more ‘extreme’ workout with different exercises will makes sure that they keep developing.

      Have a great day!

  6. Eco_Catherine Reply

    Thank you for this informative post. I prefer free weights because they ensure that several muscles get a work out instead of just one. Thank you.

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