Should I Use Free Weights or Machines?

Many machine exercises use a weight stack such as this.

Many machine exercises use a weight stack such as this.

It’s the beginning of the year and it’s the time of the year for people make New Year’s resolutions to get in shape. Gyms are usually the most crowded at this time of the year and this year is no exception. Most newcomers jump onto the stationary bikes and start peddling away because they aren’t sure what else to do. Some that are more adventurous head over to the weight machines and start pumping away. While using the weight machines are better than not lifting at all there are better options for getting fit.

When describing free weights, these include barbells and dumbbells. Cables and pulleys are technically machines but are usually included in the free weight category because they allow you to move in multiple directions. Anything else like battle ropes, kettle bells, or medicine balls that allow movement in all planes of motion would also fall into the free-weight category. When describing machines, these are apparatuses that allow movement on a track or axis and don’t allow movements in any other direction.

I have long been a proponent of free weights instead of weight machines. There are just so many more benefits to using free weights as opposed to machines yet there are countless people who continue to prefer to use them exclusively. There are a few benefits that machines provide however so I’ll go over them first.

Benefits of Machines:


Relatively Stable. I always tell my clients that the good thing about the machines are they provide the stability for you and the bad thing about the machines is they provide the stability for you. It’s good in the sense that your chance for injury is less because there are fewer muscles involved for the stabilization. For someone who has absolutely no idea what to do this is a good thing since there are fewer things that can go wrong during the exercise. There are less muscles to control so a beginner can concentrate on the correct movement patten.

For most people who want some functionality with their training, machines are not the best training exercises since muscle stabilizers do not have to work as much. This means fewer muscles are working in total and the stabilizers are not strengthened.


Injury Rehab. I played rugby for almost 15 years and have had my share of injuries. When I am rehabbing my injuries I usually opt for machines. The reason for this is to allow me to work the non-injured body parts while avoiding the injured ones.

Machines tend to isolate muscles groups better than free weights. This is usually not ideal for most people’s goal but it is great when trying to keep the focus on one muscle group. For example when I hurt my knee, I was not able to squat without pain so to hit each leg evenly I hopped onto the seated leg press and did what I could with the injured side, then matched it with the non-injured leg. This wasn’t a good workout for the strong leg, but it did not accentuate the muscle imbalance caused by the injury.

Click here for more on how to deal with injuries.

10 machinesWorking in Isolation. While working a muscle in isolation can actually be detrimental to the workouts of most, it can be a benefit to some. The majority of my clients are not bodybuilders and neither are most people in gyms so this benefit won’t really apply to a lot of people. While there is no exercise can work a muscle with 100% isolation, some machines can provide a lot of stabilization so the use of the stabilizing muscles is kept to a minimum. In bodybuilding symmetry is an important component so it is necessary to incorporate exercises that will isolate certain muscles as much as possible. For example if your biceps were small compared to the rest of your body that would not be symmetrical so more bigger biceps would be needed to even things out. If you wanted to hit your biceps without involving a lot of other muscles, a machine preacher may be a good exercise to include because it limits the use of the other muscles in the movement. Most bodybuilders will rarely use machine weights exclusively however, and they usually incorporate machine exercises with free weight exercises.

Other than these exceptions I really don’t see a lot of benefit to using machines over free weights. The rest of this article will cover why you should get your butt off the machine to get in shape.


A rack of dumbbells is useful for many free-weight exercises.

A rack of dumbbells is useful for many free-weight exercises.

Benefits of Free Weights:

Unstable. As I said previously the bad thing about machines is they are stable. This means that you have to work less of your stabilizing muscles to do the exercise. While this may be good for a beginner who is not sure of what to do and has no supervision, I never start my clients on machines, even those who have never worked out in their lives.

With free weights, your body needs to active it’s stabilizing muscles in order to do the exercise properly since the weights can move in all directions. This helps with muscle control and builds functional strength, which is strength that can be utilized in everyday life. Since this is using more muscles, it will build more muscles so this is good for people who want to burn calories.

Progression. To make a machine exercise more difficult you can either raise the weight or slow down the tempo. When using free weights you can do both of those things, but you can also make an exercise more unstable.For example with a squat you can start with a normal 2 legged squat. To progress the exercise you can stand on a bosu while doing the squat. When that gets too easy you can do a one legged squat, then do a one legged squat on a bosu and so on an so on. There are many ways to make each exercise more difficult when you aren’t limited to a track or axis.

Versatility. There are three basic planes of motion, front and back (sagittal,) side to side(frontal,) and twisting (transverse.) A machine will usually move in only one of these panes of motion. A free weight exercise can move in all different directions and you can incorporate two movements into an exercise.   For example a lunge can be done with a forward step, a backward step, a side step, or with a 90 degree or more twist. You can also add a curl, a press, a front raise, etc. The only limits for your exercise are your creativity and athletic ability.

Safety. There are risks of injury when working out. There are risks with machines as well as free weights. When I was in college I was doing heavy squats. Everything was fine. I headed over to the leg extension machine and that is where I hurt my back. I didn’t know how important proper form was back then and I was trying to get the most weight up.

While it probably a lot more common for someone to get hurt squatting and very unusual for someone to injure themselves on a leg extension machine, strange things do happen. For a novice inexperienced lifter machines will generally pose less risk while the exercise is being done than free weights.

This may seem contradictory toward the point I am trying to make but the safety I am talking about is not during the workout. It is where the most time is spent and that is outside the gym. When performing unstable exercises you are increasing your functional strength. This means more core and other stabilizing muscles are being used. By building these stabilizers in a controlled environment like the gym, they will be able to support you in uncontrolled environments outside the gym.

10 standing overhead pressMultiple Joints. The benefit of using multiple joints during an exercise is that more muscle are working at once.  This means less exercises are needed to work the entire body and that the workouts are more time efficient.

For example with a squat the hips, knees and ankles are all moving and the spine, shoulders, elbows and wrists are working to stabilize the weight.  This means that three joints are moving so all the muscles that move these joints are working.For a squat this would include the quads, hamstrings, glutes and claves. The rest of the body is working to stabilize the weight.

Compare that to a leg extension or leg curl where the knee joint is moving and the most of the stabilization is done by the seat, back pad. The arms are involved to some extent when holding the handles. The knee joint is the only moving joint and the major muscle working is the quad. As you can see the squat is a more efficient use of time and the body is burning a lot more calories per rep.


If you are currently using machines with your workout, hopefully this article has inspired you to go use some free weights in your routine. If you are already using free weights I hope this article reinforces your decision to use free weights and will start to incorporate more exercises like squats and standing overhead presses. If you like this article please subscribe to my newsletter or give it a like on facebook or share it on Twitter.