Free Weights Vs. Resistance Machines
Walk into most gyms these days, and you’ll see two separate universes.
One will be the free weight section that has a vast array of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, benches, supports - which can be quite intimidating for beginners as everyone seems to know exactly what they’re doing.
The other section is the resistance machine area where you’ll find rows upon rows of contraptions with pulleys and stacks of weights.
Beginners tend to go for the machines because they’re less scary. Often, they stick to them without venturing across the border into ‘free weight world’, sometimes for many years.
Is this a mistake? Is there a point where you should transition from one to the other? Are free weights better than machines or vice versa?
This post will reveal the pros and cons of each and help you decide which is best for you.
What the free weight vs. machine debate is really about
Before looking at the pros and cons of each training technique, let’s first try to understand the debate. It’s not enough to just say one is better than the other because it gets you better results.
It is very much dependent on your goals and the results you want to see. Someone trying to lose weight will want to see rapid fat loss. A bodybuilder wants to get or remain pumped. Somebody overcoming a muscle injury wants to exercise their injured muscle safely.
As you can see, each of these people will have a different perspective on the debate.
With that in mind, we can try to understand the pros and cons of both free weights and machines from an unbiased point of view.
Advantages of resistance machines
After a short induction, most people will feel confident in using resistance machines. Most of them involve just one simple movement. Sometimes you may have to make some small adjustments to seat or grip height, but that’s about as complex as it gets. You don’t need to worry too much about getting the correct form and posture while lifting as the machine is designed to put you in the optimal position.
Target specific muscle groups
When you’re using a weight machine, you are in a stable position and the range of motion is limited (apart from some cable machines which have features of both free and machine weight lifting). This means all of your exertions will be concentrated on a specific muscle group more efficiently than if you were free lifting.
Increase weight more rapidly
If you’re lifting free weights there comes the point where you’ll need assistance or someone to ‘spot’ for you which means helping you to get heavy weights into position and take the strain if necessary. Machines, on the other hand, allow you to lift heavy weights in a controlled way. Some machines have a safety bar or lever that you can use to take the strain and get the weights into position.
Less risk of injury
The controlled motion and stability of weight machines makes them safer than free lifting, in general. This is especially true for the elderly, very unfit or people recovering from an injury. The ability to isolate muscle groups more easily with machines means that people rehabilitating from an injury can avoid putting a direct strain on the injured muscle. But, be aware that if used incorrectly, machines still have the potential to cause injury. Always ask an instructor for help if you’re unsure.
Disadvantages of resistance machines
Machines restrict your motion, which means that you won’t get the full benefit of certain exercises. Also, some machines can actually increase the risk of injury if not used properly. For instance, using a Smith machine for squats may put extra stress on your knees if you happen to have a body type that doesn’t exactly match the machine’s settings.
May encourage over-lifting
Increasing the lifting weight is as simple as moving a pin, which means that many people try to lift weights that are too heavy for them. Machines with safety bars encourage over-lifting even more, as the machine takes the initial strain, so the user may not realise how heavy the weight is until it’s too late.
Misses out some of the stabilising muscles
Some of the smaller muscles around the joints are missed entirely by weight machines. For example, if you are using dumbbells to do chest flyes, you will be using plenty of the smaller shoulder and elbow muscles to maintain stability and create a smooth motion. By contrast, when you use a pec deck machine to target the chest muscles, the motion is controlled by the machine, and your joint muscles won’t need to work for stability.
If you visit the gym at peak time the weight machine area can get very busy. If your gym only has one or two of each machine, you may have to queue to use them. This is rarely a problem in the free weight section of the gym where there is more space and usually plenty of equipment to share.
Advantages of free weights
More thorough work out
Due to the free range of motion, more of your smaller muscles will be exercised along with the major muscle groups. This is especially important for people that take part in sports as it can help to reduce the risk of injury when taking part.
There is a huge variety of lifts you can do with just a pair of dumbbells or a barbell. This means you can exercise every muscle in the body in a shorter space of time.
You don’t need to move from machine to machine to get a full workout, and you’ll find that there is normally plenty of equipment for everyone to use in the free weight section. Also, if you want to train at home, you don’t need as much space or as big of a budget to buy a set of dumbbells as you would need to buy a multi-gym.
If you’re looking to build some serious muscle, then free weights are probably the best option as they activate more muscles with each lift and promote accelerated muscle growth.
Disadvantages of free weights
More difficult to learn
To use free weights properly, with a lower risk of injury, you need to master the correct technique. Form is all-important and can take a while to perfect, especially if you’re trying to learn a lot of new lifts.
Higher risk of injury
Following on from the last point, if you don’t use the correct form and posture when lifting, you can do yourself some serious damage. When you lift with free weights, you’re relying on keeping everything in alignment and positioned correctly. Just a small misalignment can cause strained or torn muscles, especially when training with heavy weights.
Some lifts need assistance
Unlike machines where you can workout alone, some of the free lifts require a ‘spotter’. A spotter is a training partner who will take the strain on certain lifts, or will be there in case you drop the weight (during a bench press for instance).
Should you use free weights or machines?
The answer to this question depends on a few factors including your goals, personal preferences, current fitness level and availability of time.
In general, free weights are ideal for:
- Intermediate to advanced bodybuilders that want to get stronger muscles and maintain their physique. They may want to use machines here and there to isolate and target certain muscles, but free weights will give them better overall results for the time spent in the gym.
- Athletes and sports-people that compete regularly benefit more from free weights as it strengthens muscles that cover a complete range of movement, unlike machines. This will help them to remain injury-free.
- People overcoming injuries will benefit from specific lifts. Obviously, care needs to be taken that the lift being performed and the amount of weight is safe, but when carried out under expert supervision or guidance, free weights can speed up recovery from injury.
Resistance machines are ideal for:
- Beginner bodybuilders or fitness enthusiasts who are new to the gym. Free weights can be a bit off-putting as they require more knowledge and skill, whereas machines are beginner-friendly. Weight machines usually have clear instructions and diagrams on a poster near the machine to explain how to perform the lift correctly, and they are usually straightforward to use, making them ideal for novices.
- Intermediate to advanced bodybuilders may want to combine free weights with a few machine exercises for variety and to target individual muscles for greater gains.
- People overcoming injuries that don’t have access to expert supervision or guidance are safer using machines that don’t target the injured muscle group. For instance, somebody with a hamstring injury can use upper body machines to build their strength and exercise without putting any strain on the injured muscle.
Most people that regularly attend the gym for strength training will use a combination of both. There’s nothing wrong with that, as both free weights and machines have their pros and cons.
If you’re a beginner, you may feel more confident starting with the resistance machines purely down to their simplicity.
But don’t be afraid to step up to free weights when you’re ready, as it will open up a whole new world of fitness as you’ll be able to strengthen and tone every muscle in your body rather than just a select few.