Free Weights vs Machines: Which Is Right for You?
Are you new to strength training? Or just unsure how to get the best results? If so, you’ve probably wondered about the big debate: free weights vs. machines. These two types of equipment can both be useful for increasing your strength and gaining muscle. But first, you need to understand what they do and the best way to use them.
Take a look around your local gym, and you’ll see people of all sizes and shapes using this equipment. Oftentimes, people will bounce between free weights and machines as they complete their workout. Clearly, both free weights and machines work when it comes to getting in shape. So what are the pros and cons of each type of equipment? And which should you include in your own fitness regimen?
AN INTRODUCTION TO STRENGTH TRAINING
Strength training, or weight lifting, isn’t just for bodybuilders and strongmen anymore. Gymgoers of all kinds have turned to strength training to improve their fitness and physiques. Even former cardio enthusiasts, who previously only spent time on the treadmill or elliptical, have ventured into the strength training section of their local gym.
Strength training offers countless benefits to both out-of-shape and fit gymgoers. Obviously, lifting weights increases your body’s overall muscle mass. This muscle mass protects your joints from injury, increases your physical abilities, and even burns additional calories. Lifting weights also helps prevent bone loss, which is especially important for women as they age. Some people even report better quality sleep after a good lifting session at the gym.
So how does strength training actually work? When you lift a given weight, say a 20-pound dumbbell, your respective muscles adapt to make this task easier and easier each time you do it. To keep progressing, gaining strength and muscle, you must then upgrade to 25 pounds, 30 pounds, and so on. Your muscles will continue to adapt to this increased stimuli. Since you can use a variety of weights, from 2.5 pounds to over 100 pounds, these exercises can be tailored to any size or fitness level.
Fortunately, the popularity of strength training isn’t just a fad. And while some fitness experts argue between free weights vs. machines, results can be achieved with either one. All it takes is proper technique, good nutrition, and the right routine.
CHOOSING A ROUTINE THAT WORKS FOR YOU
Finding a routine that works for you can be difficult. Not only because every individual has a different body with different goals, but also because there are countless routines available to choose from. These routines range from 100-percent body weight movements to full-on Olympic-level strength training. Some good places to search for routines include Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com.
To find the best routine for your given situation, the first thing you should do is determine your fitness goals. These goals should be obtainable, but also encourage you to push yourself over time. Appropriate goals include increased strength, visibly bigger muscles, and more.
If you have a specific part of your body that would like to gain muscle on, this is also important. Some routines will focus on building leg muscle and strength while neglecting the upper body. Other routines will do the reverse. But if you’re just starting out with your strength training regimen, a full-body routine is the best option.
Another thing to consider is whether you have free weights, machines, or both at your disposal. There are some benefits and disadvantages to using free weights vs. machines. But most quality routines will offer a mix of exercises utilizing both types of equipment. Of course, if you don’t have the advantage of choosing between free weights vs. machines, you can adapt most exercises to whatever you do have available.
When you see the term free weights, it’s referring to weights that are not connected to a machine. These include dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, weighted balls, and more. But the ones most commonly used for serious strength training are barbells with plates and dumbbells.
Not all gyms have free weights, but most do. If you’re particularly big or strong already, you might also find that your gym doesn’t have weights heavy enough for your needs. A quality strength training gym will have a wide range of dumbbells and barbell plates, as well as axillary equipment. This extra equipment can include racks, safeties, and pads. While you don’t need this additional equipment to use free weights (technically, you only need the weights themselves) they can allow for a wider variety of exercises and also help prevent injury.
On the other side of the free weights vs. machines debate are strength machines. Strength machines come in a variety of brands and styles, though most look and function much the same way. These machines replicate traditional weight lifting movements, like bicep curls, squats, and bench pressing, but with a controlled design. Strength machines typically only accommodate one exercise each. But some can be adjusted for other movements as well.
Many gym machines have a bad reputation for causing injury, being ineffective, or just being easier than free weights. However, this equipment is often more approachable for gym newcomers. While the free weights area of your gym can appear intimidating or unwelcoming, strength machines offer clear instructions and little room for error.
Some equipment does toe the line between free weights vs. machines. For instance, a Smith machine is a barbell loaded with plates. However, this barbell is mounted in a frame that moves up and down, and sometimes back and forth. Some serious weightlifters shy away from these machines, but they can be an excellent alternative for those who cannot use free weights because of an injury or other concern.
FREE WEIGHTS VS MACHINES: WHICH IS BETTER?
The question most people want to know when it comes to free weights vs. machines is: which is better? Like with most things fitness-related, there is no clear, cut-and-dry answer to this question. Ultimately, when it comes to free weights vs. machines, the one that’s right for you is the one that keeps you coming to the gym.
Some people find that machines make them feel more comfortable in the gym than free weights. But if you can push past this discomfort and become confident in a free weight routine, this is no longer an issue. However, each type of equipment has its own pros and cons that you should consider before completely discrediting its competition.
If strength is one of your primary goals, then free weights are likely more practical. When it comes time to lift a plank of wood or large box, will it be connected to a perfectly balanced and stable machine? Probably not. Free weights don’t just offer resistance in the form of weight. They also require balance and stabilization from your core and other muscles. Because of this, most major free weight exercises are actually full-body exercises.
Another advantage of free weights vs. machines is the ability to use a varied, full range of motion. Strength machines force you into following a certain movement path when you move a weight. Free weights allow for you to adjust this movement pattern to suit your body. With this freedom, you can also tailor a lift to target a specific part of your muscle or better adjust for an injury.
When working out in a busy gym, finding and claiming the equipment you need can be hard. Using machines for the majority of your workout means constantly changing equipment, and likely waiting for machines to free up. But if you use free weights for your workout, you can often use the same basic equipment for your entire routine. You might need to find additional plates, but this is generally easier than waiting in line for a machine.
As we said, strength machines often attract new gymgoers because they are simpler to use. Many machines have diagrams printed right on them, and even if they don’t, their use is fairly intuitive. For those who aren’t 100-percent confident in their gym presence, these machines can help introduce strength training into their routine.
When looking at free weights vs. machines, strength machines typically offer more opportunities to isolate specific muscles. While this won’t benefit those who solely wish to gain functional strength, it can help those who want to build muscle for aesthetic goals. Free weights work the entire body, with a generalized focus on certain muscles. This is great for building strength and muscle mass overall, but it won’t let you focus specifically on building, for instance, your biceps or glutes. For this reason, many bodybuilders or aesthetic-focused lifters use free weights for their base but round out their routine with isolation machine exercises.
Strength machines often place your body in slightly unnatural positions. But for those who have little or no gym experience, this can actually be safer than using free weights. When using a machine, you will probably never need to worry about a weight falling on your head, slipping from your grip, or rolling away. These are all risks that come with free weights, especially for the inexperienced.
FREE WEIGHTS VS. MACHINES: WHO SHOULD USE THEM?
Ultimately, we recommend a strength routine that implements both free weights and strength machines. Both types of equipment offer benefits. And for a healthy individual, there’s no reason to choose a definitive side in the free weights vs. machines debate. But in some cases, one type of equipment will be better than the other.
For some athletes, especially those who perform weightlifting-like movements in their sport, free weights are superior. Strength machines cannot provide the same level of full-body stability training that a barbell can provide. While training with a machine won’t be completely useless, free weights are absolutely a better use of your time.
However, for those with weak stabilizers, poor balance, or an existing injury, machines are often superior. But don’t mistake these traits for those of a new gymgoer. Instead, this category of people includes those rehabbing a major injury, the elderly, and those with head injuries that affect their coordination. Of course, if you fall into this category you should always consult with a doctor or physical therapist before beginning a weight training routine.
WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE FOR AN AT-HOME GYM?
If you are more of an at-home workout person, then the choice of free weights vs. machines is a very easy one. Strength machines offer very limited exercises, and you practically need one machine for every exercise you want to do. Free weights, on the other hand, are relatively cheap and you can use the same equipment for most, if not all, of your routine. Plus, you can store free weights much easier than you can a large strength machine.
Yes, you will lose the benefits of strength machines by leaving them out of your home gym. You might not have the opportunity to isolate certain muscles or perform certain movements safely. However, these missed benefits are minute if you can maintain a substantial free weight routine.
This doesn’t mean that strength machines have no place in a home gym. But for most people, they are expensive and not versatile enough to be worth the investment. However, if you have space and can find a strength machine at a discounted price, then it might be worth purchasing.
FIND THE STRENGTH TOOLS THAT WORK FOR YOU
When it comes to introducing strength training into your fitness routine, the most important thing is that it meets your goals and suits your lifestyle. If your routine makes you dread going to the gym or you find yourself skipping exercises, it’s time to re-evaluate. Transforming your health and fitness does take work, yes, but it shouldn’t feel like a constant uphill struggle.
Before jumping into a new strength training routine, consider meeting with a personal trainer. If you have the resources for one, a personal trainer can help answer all of your questions regarding free weights vs. machines. They can also help you understand your fitness goals and recommend the right routine for you. And, especially if you opt for a free weight-oriented routine, their oversight is essential to learning proper form and preventing injuries.
In the end, the free weights vs. machines debate is pretty irrelevant. Some select gymgoers will excel at one or the other. But most quality routines will call for free weight exercises, machine exercises, and a little bit in-between. Even if you approached this article with a definitive opinion on free weights vs. machines, hopefully, you now see that both have their merits. And even the biggest, strongest lifters turn to a strength machine on occasion.