Free Weights vs. Machines Article

Gym life is important and essential to every fitness-minded person. There’s nothing better than putting in a solid workout to really get you centered and focused on your goals.

Man At Gym on Treadmill

When you walk in the gym, do you have a set routine that uses free weights and/or machines?

Or, do you walk in and wonder what type of equipment you should be using to meet your goals?

Does it matter if you use free weights, bodyweight, or machines? Turns out, there are reasons to choose one over the other.

Arnold

Golden Era great Arnold Schwarzenegger was a great example of using both free weights and machines. He would run the rack with free weights to focus on one muscle group, then hit the machines to work another.

Today, we discuss using free weights vs machines, and when one might work better than the other.

First, let’s differentiate the two. Then, we’ll go over specific gym goals and which type of equipment would work better to meet them.

What are Free Weights?

Dictionary.com defines a free weight as “a weight used for weightlifting whose motion is not constrained by external apparatus.”

Free Weights

Most athletes use free weights to train for sports, and strength training is essential for:

Free weights are either picked up in hand or attached to a barbell. 

The force of gravity opposes the force of the muscle through contractions (concentric and eccentric) to build strength and mass.

Examples of free weights include:

  • Barbell (weighted bar) with weight plates
  • Dumbbell
  • Kettlebells
  • Medicine ball
  • Sandbags 
  • Weighted bands/cuffs (for ankles and wrists)

What are Machines?

Exercise machines are defined as “a machine or device used for physical exercise or training.” 

Gym with Machines

When considering exercise or gym equipment, machines include:

  • Treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Cable machine
  • Pulley machine
  • Nautilus machine
  • Smith machine
  • Leg extension
  • Multi-use machine

These machines are designed to either focus on one specific muscle group or multiple depending on the machine. For example, a Nautilus machine is designed as a full-body workout machine, free weights not needed. 

Now that we’ve defined each type of workout equipment, let’s take a look at different scenarios for the best equipment choice.

Vintage Blast

Are You a Seasoned Bodybuilder or Just Starting Out?

Your skill level in the gym can determine whether to choose free weights vs machines.

If you are a seasoned bodybuilder, then you likely use free weights more than machines. Or, you might use a combination of the two to meet your lifting goals. 

But what if you are a beginner just starting out? Is one preferable to the other?

Man Chest Machine

For those just getting comfortable with lifting weights, then starting with machines is going to be the better option.

There are a couple of reasons why:

1. Less skill involved

Almost all machines will have stickers that instruct you on how to use them properly and what muscle groups they use. This not only helps with proper form, but it also ensures you are using the equipment properly to avoid injury.

2. Getting used to using muscle groups

You can get used to the proper movements needed for each muscle group, and what weight limits work best for you.

If you find that you choose a weight that’s too heavy, the machine will help guide you back to the starting position safely.

Even if you suddenly let go of the handles, the machine is designed to take the weight off the user, avoiding injury.

3. No spotter needed

With machines, you won’t have to worry about having a spotter. You can take your time using the machine, getting used to the range of motion, and figuring out what works for you. 

Once you get used to the machines, you can move to free weights. But it’s always advisable as a new lifter to start out with machines, especially if you don’t have a spotter.

Are You Recovering from Injury?

Regardless if you are a seasoned lifter or just starting out, recovering from an injury requires reconditioning. In this instance, choosing between free weights vs machines, the machines might be a better choice.

Machines are able to isolate single muscle groups far better than free weights can. When it comes to rehabilitating an injury, using a machine can be preferable.

Sore Man on Machines

For example, say you’ve had a knee injury or surgery and need to work the quad in that leg. Your physical therapist will likely have you use a leg extension machine before you’re ready to tackle free weights.

Now, that doesn’t mean a therapist will always use machines for rehabilitation.

In fact, some may decide bodyweight only or free weights might be advisable. It truly comes down to the type of injury and goals for rehabilitation.

Strength Training and Overall Power

When it comes to increasing power or building strength, which do you think is better? Comparing free weights vs machines, free weights definitely win in this category.

Any powerlifter or bodybuilding competitor will tell you that free weights reign over machines. The explosive nature of deadlifting competitions requires a power that just can’t be found in a weight machine.

Athletes also prefer free weights for similar reasons. The stability and skill required to lift heavy weights lend itself directly to:

  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Tackling
  • Blocking

When trying to improve jump performance, 100 men were divided between two groups and studied over eight weeks. Half performed the parallel barbell squat while the other did leg presses twice a week.

Squats with Free Weights

Each exercise offered a different benefit to their respective group:

  • The barbell squat group were able to significantly increase their squat jump and countermovement jump.
  • The leg press group were able to significantly increase their 1-repetition-maximum

Improving strength and power are also essential to the natural movements of our bodies: pushing, pulling, and lifting.

What about Isolation and Compound Exercises?

When comparing using free weights vs machines for these types of exercises, each has its benefits.

An isolation exercise works for just one muscle group. For example, the leg extension machine focuses on the quadriceps. If you want to perfect your bicep curl for killer biceps, the dumbbell is the best for the job.

Isolation exercises are superior when wanting to work a specific muscle to failure. Let’s say your back makes you call it quits while performing your squats, and you still want to work your glutes.


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