While it is certainly true that there are benefits of free weights compared to weight machines, there are also benefits of machines vs free weights.
If you are new to the gym or are fine-tuning your fitness goals, you may be unsure of which type of training is best for you and have some or all of the following questions:
What are the benefits of free weights vs machines? Are free weights better than machines, or vice versa? Are there benefits of a Smith machine vs free weights? Should you use weight machines or free weights for building muscle?
In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of using free weights vs weight machines, and then we will provide recommendations for when it is better to use free weights vs machines or weight machines vs free weights to reach your goals.
We will cover the following:
- Are Free Weights Better Than Machines?
- Weight Machines vs Free Weights
- Free Weights vs Machines
Let’s dive in!
Are Free Weights Better Than Machines?
Like most “this-or-that“ fitness questions, there is no single answer to the question: “Is it better to use free weights or machines” or “Is it better to use weight machines or free weights?”
Each person has their own unique fitness goals, training needs, ability level, weightlifting limitations, and access to exercise equipment, all of which converge in ways that may make it better to use an exercise machine like a Smith machine vs free weights or vice versa.
Plus, there are benefits and drawbacks to free weights and benefits and drawbacks of weight machines, adding a layer of depth that makes it simply impossible or shortsighted to make a blanket statement about which type of strength training equipment is the best for everyone.
Weight Machines vs Free Weights
Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of free weights and weight machines separately to help make a head-to-head comparison of using barbells and dumbbells vs weight machines (or any other form of free weights vs strength training machines).
Advantages of Strength Training Machines
#1: Weight machines can be a good starting place for beginners, seniors, and others who have poor balance and coordination.
This is because weight machines are generally safer to use because there is no risk of dropping the weight on yourself (as is the case, for example, when you are doing a bench press or dumbbell chest press), and weight machines only allow movement along a fixed path of motion.
This means that you do not need to balance or rely on smaller stabilizing muscles to maintain proper form throughout the range of motion of the exercise.
#2: Weight machines may improve max strength.
Studies have found that Smith machine squats can be highly effective at increasing strength and result in a higher one-rep max than when performing squats with free weights.There is even evidence to suggest that Smith machine squats actually activate more muscles than free-weight squats.
#3: Weight machines are great for those who are recovering from an injury.
This is because most strength training machines isolate a specific movement and do not require you to actually load your body with weight.
Consider the difference between doing a barbell back squat or using a leg press machine.
When you are doing a barbell back squat, your entire spine and trunk are loaded under the weight of the barbell and weight plates.
Despite a tremendous amount of stress and compression on your spine. If you have a back injury, barbell back squats may be contraindicated because it would be unsafe to load your spine with weight.
In contrast, if you are using a leg press machine vs free weights, you will still work similar muscle groups, but there is no external load on your body.
You are pressing a platform away from your body that raises a weight stack suspended by cables.
Thus, choosing a leg press weight machine vs free weight squat option (barbell, dumbbells, etc.) can be useful when rehabilitating an injury in your back.
A similar principle applies when using many weight machines vs free weights.
Plus, as mentioned, the fixed plane of motion dictated by the weight machine reduces the need to stabilize your joints as much as when using free weights.
This can cut back on stress and strain in joints like your knees, ankles, and hips, which again is particularly helpful if you are recovering from an injury in a ligament, tendon, or joint.
Keep in mind that the fixed plane of motion and the fact that you do not need to use your core muscles or smaller stabilizing muscles when using a weight machine vs free weights is not necessarily advantageous overall.
However, it certainly has its applications in injury rehab, learning exercise technique for beginners, and trying to max out on the weight that you can lift to build strength as a powerlifter or strength athlete.
#4: Most weight machines also force the correct movement for the lift.
This may help reduce the risk of injury and ensure you are moving through the entire range of motion for each repetition.
Plus, the built-in safety of knowing that you will not drop the weights on yourself can help encourage athletes to truly move through the full range of motion, even through the “sticking point,“ rather than cheating on the movement range to potentially prevent hitting muscular failure and hurting yourself.
#5: Weight machines are efficient.
An often-overlooked benefit of strength training workouts using weight machines vs free weights is that weight machine workouts tend to be more efficient from a time perspective.
Most gyms have weight machines organized in a circuit, and all you have to do is sit down at the machine, move the pin to the appropriate weight in the weight stack, and start your set.
When you are lifting free weights, you might have to take off the collars on a barbell and add or remove weight plates between exercises.
This can take more time and, depending on your primary training goal, the rest which you have to set up for your next free weight exercise will allow your heart rate to come back down.
This will decrease the cardio benefits of strength training compared to circuit training, when you go immediately from one exercise to the next with no rest.
Weight machine workouts can be more efficient because they are generally organized in a circuit in your gym, and you can easily move from one to another.
That said, if you don’t properly adjust the settings so the machine is set up correctly for your body, you can not only cheat in the movement but risk getting hurt.
#5: Weight machines do not require a spotter.
For heavy weights and maximal efforts, most machines have the advantage of not needing a spotter.
Disadvantages of Strength Training Machines
- Most machines require you to move the weight in a predetermined path, making it difficult to strengthen the stabilizer muscles.
- Most machines are designed for the average-sized adult, so if you are smaller or larger, shorter or taller than “average,” the machine may not fit you well.
Free Weights vs Machines
Advantages of Free Weights
#1: Free weights require the use of stabilizing muscles.
Free weights require you to recruit your stabilizing muscles and core muscles because your body has to balance the weight, and you need to control the planes of motion.
This results in improvements in well-rounded strength and can help improve posture, balance, and coordination.
#2: Free weights improve functional strength.
Exercises with free weights usually match real-life and sports-specific movement patterns much closer than the single-plane motions dictated by machines.
Your ability to complete an exercise with a given dumbbell (or kettlebell) is going to translate better than machines to functional strength for everyday life.
#3: Free weights workouts can be done at home.
Free weights are more portable and affordable, so you can purchase them for your own home.
Working out at home can also be more convenient for some depending on work and family life schedules.
#4: Free weights allow for more variety.
Because free weights don’t force your body to do a certain movement, you can accomplish a greater variety of exercises and ultimately train all your muscles and allow you to mix up your routine.
This accelerates neuromuscular and muscular gains. It can also help fight boredom!
Overall, research indicates you will get stronger faster and have more effective strength (athleticism) by using free weights.
Disadvantages of Free Weights
- Particularly with heavy lifts and overhead motions, you need to have a spotter.
- It is easier to use the improper technique, and since you have to balance weights, it may be dangerous for older adults, beginners, and those with balance issues.
- It is potentially easier to “cheat” in an exercise (and also risk injury) by swinging weights and relying on momentum to help through the repetition rather than using only muscle force.
Overall, it can be seen that there are a number of shared and unique benefits to free weights and weight machines.
Although you may find that either free weights or weight machines are generally a better fit for your weightlifting routine, in many cases, adding both forms of resistance into your strength training routine can be beneficial.
For another comparison of strength training equipment, check out our guide to dumbbells vs resistance bands here.