Which is better, free weights vs weight machines? This is a question as old as time! This guide aims to explain the pros and cons of each. The answer to the question really lies in your goals, so we will talk that over too.
Let’s compare free weights vs weight machines
Pros of free weights:
- More effective at building all aspects of strength. Maximum strength, explosive strength, static strength and strength endurance.
- Better at training stabiliser muscles at the same time as large major muscle groups as you are in full control of movement.
- More able to replicate functional movements replicating other activities such as sports.
- Cheaper than weight machines and take up far less space.
Cons of free weights:
- Easier to get injured as there is no machine to correct mistakes or poor form.
- Resistance varies over the course of a range of motion, whereas machines are able to keep this more consistent.
- Can be harder to move up weight in small increments, especially when training small muscle groups.
Now let’s talk about weight machines, a number of these points will be the inverse of what we discussed on free weights!
Pros of weight machines:
- Able to isolate specific muscles should you wish to concentrate all your effort into building these. Therefore able to lift greater amounts.
- Possible to generate a more consistent level of resistance across a full range of motion.
- Often easier, simpler and faster to use and change up or down resistance.
Cons of weight machines:
- Not as effective for the development of all types of strength.
- Neglect stabiliser muscles as they assist in isolating muscles, guiding the movement, doing the balancing work of the stabilisers.
- Not possible to work all muscles of the body, you would need far too many machines!
- More expensive, taking up more space than free weights.
So what does all that tell us then?
Well, as the intro said, there is not really an outright winner, it depends on your goals. In fact many well rounded weight training regimes will use elements of both.
When to use free weights vs weight machines
Free weights are better to use when you are training compound exercises with a range of movement. For example sprinters wanting to train explosive strength would use a weighted barbell to carry out squats and dead lifts.
Weight machines are a preferred option when you are looking to train a single muscle or muscle group in isolation. Often when recovering from an injury. But also when attempting a maximum lift. For example it is easier to bench press a heavy weight on the assisted smith machine than with dumbbells.
Purists will tell you that free weights are superior. Part of the reason is that they have been training for years and are already strong.
If you are just starting out it can be good to use weight machines for several reasons:
- Build base level of strength
- Less chance of injury
- Guide you through correct form
Once you have gained confidence and a base level of strength on weight machines for a few months it is far easier to progress to the more demanding free weight exercises.
Some further reading if you are interested…
Great article by Built Lean
BodyBuilding.com have this excellent guide
Wrapping this up…
I hope this has answered the question, there is no right or wrong, better or worse. Only pros and cons of each. Keep these in mind when identifying goals and making a decision on using free weights vs weight machines.
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