Free Weights vs Machines

By 19th May 2014Fitness, Strength

Free Weights VS Machines; Which are Best?

Walking into a gym for the first time can be a rather confusing experience. Everywhere you look you see shiny, multi level equipment, weight stacks and cables attached. Then there are the free weights – the dumbbells and barbells, squat and bench press racks. You can do the same exercises on both types of equipment. So why the double up – and which is better? Inquiring minds wanna know!

Different But The Same

There are, in fact, three distinct types of equipment found in most gyms. Along with free weights and machines there are cable and pulley devices. Free weights are made up of barbells, dumbbells, weight plates and the associated racks and benches needed to perform the exercises. Cable and pulley devices use cables and pulleys to change the direction of resistance, allowing a person to change the direction of resistance, allowing the trainer to perform free weight type exercises that are not possible with just a barbell or dumbbell. Machines introduce a level of complexity to the gym. They feature seats, a complex series of cams and pulleys, and they provide variable resistance. As a result, machines force the trainer to move along a pre-determined track, which is dictated by the machine’s design.

Machine Benefits & Limitations

A great benefit of machines – and the reason why trainers usually start newbies off on them – is that they are harder to use incorrectly. The reason is that they limit the ways you can push and pull on them. This allows beginners to train proper movement patterns into their central nervous system. It also helps to prevent injury.  These benefits, however, are counter balanced by the fact that the forced guidance track that is built into machines does away with the need to recruit stabilizer muscles when doing the exercise. Stabilizer muscle recruitment is a key to developing functional strength – the ability to use the strength developed through exercise to perform everyday tasks. To develop functional strength you need to do exercises that rely on your body to work as whole unit. Machines eliminate the need to recruit stabilizer muscles and, as a result, are not as effective at developing functional strength as free weights are.

Another problem with machines is that they have limitations in their adaptability to the height and body shape of the trainer. Even though most of them have adjustable seats and handles, it is impossible to design a machine that suits every body type. Machines are also not as multi-functional as free weights, and the frame of the machine also doesn’t allow for ideal exercise position for all body types. Machines cannot provide anything but an approximate match between a person’s strength curves and the machine’s resistance curves.


Machines are great for teaching beginners good form and helping them to learn what it feels like to lift correctly. That’s because they ensure good form. They’re also excellent for isolating individual muscles and are the way to go for people who are recovering from injury. But, unless you’re a beginner or are rehabbing, don’t build your routine around machines. Where possible, perform free weight versions of functional strength movements rather than the machine version (free weight squats, for example, are better then Smith machine squats). You should, however, incorporate machine exercises as secondary movements that provide isolation of the working muscle group after you’ve performed a free weight functional strength movement.

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