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Expert Solutions: Free Weights or Machines?

A Discussion with SparkPeople's Fitness Experts

It’s a classic question with no right or wrong answer. If you want an effective strength training workout, should you use free weights or machines? Which option will help you reach your goals? SparkPeople’s Fitness Experts voice their opinions on this hot topic.

As a certified personal trainer, I always recommend that people try to include both free weights (dumbbells) and machines in their strength training workouts. Here are some of the advantages of using machines:
  • They are easier to use (proper technique, form, etc.).
  • They better isolate one muscle for a more intense workout.
  • They ensure that you move with proper form through the full range of motion.
  • They allow you to lift heavier weights.
  • They reduce workout time (less time spent setting up, changing, and putting weights away).
  • You are less likely to injure yourself when using machines.
The disadvantages of using machines are directly related to the advantages. Most of the things we do in daily life involve using multiple muscles and joints at the same time. Because machines isolate muscles and work them separately, you end up making individual muscles stronger but aren’t training yourself for “functional fitness.” Likewise, because machines are adjusting, balancing, and supporting your body, the smaller muscles that would normally do these tasks in real life often don’t get exercised or strengthened.

But by incorporating both free weights and machines into your workouts, you can utilize the advantages of both and avoid the limitations of relying on either one by itself. For example, try doing one chest exercise using a chest press machine, and then add a couple sets of dumbbell flies; use the leg press machine to maximize the amount of weight you are lifting, then add a couple of sets of walking lunges with dumbbells, for balance training.

If you find the idea of using the free weights in the gym too intimidating, most gyms have a “cable cross” machine that offer many of the benefits of free weights with the convenience and safety of a machine. Ask a staff member to help you find it and figure out how to use it or check out some of SparkPeople's Cable Cross demos.

The Case for Machines
Machines are great if you're new to strength training or unfamiliar with how to target specific muscles. Most will have instructions and a diagram so that you can see how to use them properly. It's also easier to maintain proper form using a machine because the equipment is designed to support your body as you do the exercise. Machines are good choices if you don't have much time (assuming there's not a crowd of people waiting), as it can be quicker to adjust the weight on a machine than with free weights. Sometimes people are intimidated to try strength training because they aren't sure what to do, but machines can help overcome that barrier since they are so user-friendly. The negative is that machines do not give the variation or range of motion that free weights provide. Most machines have a two-dimensional movement pattern.

The Case for Free Weights
Free weights require you to stabilize and balance your body (using additional muscles), giving you a better workout in the same amount of time. You can also do a larger variety of exercises instead of being limited to the machines your gym has available. If you have a stronger side (for example, your right triceps group is stronger than your left), machines typically allow the dominant side to compensate for the weaker one. With free weights, you force the weaker muscle to do its share of the work. The negative of using free weights is that your risk of injury increases because it's easier to do exercises improperly. And because the number of exercises is endless, it's easy to create a program that's not balanced or omits exercises that target important muscle groups.

There are pros and cons to both machines and free weights, so a combination of the two can yield maximum results.

The choice to use machines or free weights is a very individual one and should be based on your overall goals, time available, experience, and injury history/risk. Here are some examples of how these variables will affect the types of exercises you might choose.

Overall Goals
  • General Fitness: Machines can give you a great foundation for general strength training, whether you're just starting out or aren't sure what your goals should be.
  • Functional Fitness: If you exercise to improve your ability to move and function in everyday life, then free weights will be a better choice because you can use them to mimic normal movement patterns, making them easier over time.
  • Muscle size and strength: Machines usually win in this case because they can really target and isolate a single muscle group while allowing you to lift more weight, which is crucial for developing size and strength. But ideally, a combination of free weights and machines will help build strength and size.
  • Specific fitness goals: The only way to get better at pull-ups is to do pull-ups. But if you're too weak to pull yourself up, an Assisted Pull-Ups Machine can help you get there. The point is that some machines can help you reach very specific fitness goals, such as this one.
Experience: I tend to recommend that beginners use machines because you really can't go wrong with them. Machines make it easy for you to do exercises correctly. Another bonus is that you don't usually need help or a trainer to figure out how to set up and adjust a machine—they usually have instructions and pictures on them, and even tell you which muscles you're working.

Free weights demand more control and strength. You have to have some idea of how to move correctly, which isn't as easy as it looks. That's why free weights and even some body weight exercises are more advanced than you might think. You have to think about a lot of things to do them correctly.

That said, you should never feel like you have to join a gym to use machines just because you're a beginner. SparkPeople's exercise demos offer precise instructions and photos to help you use good form, even at home.

Injury History/Risk: Although machines tend to be safe, not every machine is good for you. An exercise like seated leg extensions can aggravate the knees, so if you have knee problems, you'd want to avoid that machine and stick with regular squats or lunges (with or without free weights). In addition, machines allow you to lift more weight than you could probably do with free weights. If you have a bad back, lifting very heavy weights on a leg press, for example, can compromise your lower back. These are just a couple examples of how, depending on your risk level or history of joint/muscle problems, you might want to avoid certain machines entirely.

Beyond that, the best choice varies for everyone and every muscle. I use a combination of mostly free weights, and a few machines, particularly the cable cross (like Dean mentioned above). Sometimes the best way to really target a certain area of the body can be found in a machine; other times the most functional and safest way to strengthen a muscle group is with free weights.

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Member Comments

  • I've always been a big free-weight believer, especially using dumbbells.
  • Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a growing up. - James A. Baldwin
  • I recently joined a gym, the membership price is $10.00 every 2 weeks and includes gyms in a 4 mile radius of where I live, I live in Canada and it also includes a U.S. gym membership at another gym for vacations at many U.S. locations, it includes for free one session on weight training with machines, push ups, sit ups, fat, water, muscle composition,amoun
    t of calories needed to maintain or lose weight,amount of maximum weight loss needed based on age,sex etc. The next session includes information on aerobics & diet for losing weight. These 2 sessions are free with membership and all classes you want are free,sauna free & gym pass for visiting friends as well. You may consult with the trainer at any time to find out about machines or if your program should be changed. The first tests I was told I did better then most my age and managed the sit ups & push ups as well. The gym has about 12 weight training machines to use and many aerobic machines, I use resistance bands & 1-2 pound weights at home as I have a clot in my lung, I do not do more then 4 pounds at the gym. So, not all memberships are expensive!!
  • FREE WEIGHTS, benefit more in the long run. Quality strength here in Tucson, Arizona, has a motto...: we build machines, we don't use machines!
    What about resistance bands? Are they just as good for toning and slimming? I feel it the next day after working with them, but haven't really seen a comparison.
  • I really didn't "get" Dean's comment about free weights when he referred to "dumbells". What about barbells? They are a legitimate alternative.
    I was a free weight snob for a long time. I've been lifting on and off for 30 years. When I joined the Y they steered me away from the weight room. That was unofficially reserved for competitive and "serious" athletes. They started me on hydraulic resistance machines. I figured I'd do these a few months then graduate to the weight room. I ended up really liking these machines. Being computerized they remember every workout and increase weight automatically. They also increase the resistance where we are strongest and decrease it where we are weak like the old Nautalus machines did and they step up the resistance for the negative part of the rep. I found myself getting a better workout though I do know that unlike free weights they do not enlist all the auxiliary and stabilizing muscles.
  • One advantage re free weights that wasn't mentioned. They can be done at home with minimal cost. They do not require a gym membership.
  • Excellent article! Even though I have done strength training for years with both machines and weights, I learned alot from the coaches comments. It also may be helpful if you are unfamiliar with weights, to use a personal trainer for at least a couple of sessions for help with form.
  • I'm getting an education in health and fitness!
  • Itís interesting that more people in the poll chose free weights.
    I think itís a question of economics.

    If like me youíre on a pension, for about £100 ($200) you can set yourself up with a decent bar and dumbbell outfit, a mini bike and then all you need is self-discipline.

    Set yourself a target of a 2 hour session three times a week and youíre away.

    On the other hand, the gym requires money for each session, also a gym reasonably close so time becomes a factor, then you donít experiment and work out lifts and exercises which suit you.

    My worry, is that discussion about which is the better, will stop people getting started.

    To anyone reading these articles, who is wondering whether to get started Ė stop wondering get yourself a set of fixed weight dumbbells (good starters, and someone gave me my first set) study the Spark People site, build up your free weights as you build your body, and take a lot of notice of Nicole, from whom this 73 year old has learnt a great deal.

  • I actually asked my personal trainer this one day, and she gave me the same answer whch is great...although I do prefer the machines because they are easier, I do both to make sure im getting maximum results and I love it :D
    I watched my husband applaud free weights for years, now I go to the gym and use both free and machines. When I was just using the machines I* could feel the changes, but when I use just free weights there is a marked differerence. Free weight give me definition, especially in my arms. But I am doing both now. It is so much easier to do the machines, simply because you can adjust the weight so easily. I tend to make it lighter when It is hard. When you put your weight on the bar you don't take it off you just do it.