Free Weights Or Machines. Which Is Best?

For the average person trying to get in shape it can be overwhelming to walk into a gym and try to make the best choices with strength training equipment. Today, gyms often have multiple lines of weight training machines in addition to free weights. A comparison of the pro’s and con’s can help you make the best choice in relation to your fitness goals.

Weight machine pros. Machines are attractive for many because they are less intimidating and often have instructions for proper use posted on them. Other advantages include:

  • You are generally supported by adjustable seat and/or backrest.
  • Controlled motion limits improper use.
  • Stopping an exercise at any time is easily done.
  • Often set up in a circuit of stations that targets all of the major muscle groups.

Weight machine cons. Their design does have limitations that can limit your results:

  • Adjustable seats/backrests don’t always offer a good fit for everyone.
  • Support offered by seats and backrests decreases benefits to core musculature.
  • Only one exercise can usually be performed at each station.
  • Expensive. A machine that works a single muscle can easily be over $1,000.00.

Other weight machine cons. Many disadvantages also stem from the controlled motion that machines offer, such as:

  • Movement does not always mimic true functional human movement.
  • Less stimulating to muscle fibers than with non-controlled movement.
  • Demand on secondary or synergistic muscles is decreased.

Free weights. Free weights tend to be where the hot, sweaty, screaming men tend to hang out in the gym (sounds good so far right?), but for that reason and others, many women can be intimidated and tend to avoid them. When you look at the benefits of free weights, you realize that the muscle-heads have brains to go along with the brawn.

Free weight pros:

  • Versatility. One set of free weights can be used to train the entire body, often with multiple exercises per muscle group which stimulates maximum results.
  • Inexpensive. An adjustable bench with free weights can be well under $500.00.

Other free weight pros: While the controlled motion can be a disadvantage with machines, the unrestricted movement of free weights is advantageous in the following ways:

  • Improved balance and coordination, because you are required to control your own motion.
  • Stimulation to the core muscles for stability, especially if exercising with stability ball or without the support of a bench.
  • Increased stimulation to the muscle fibers of both the prime movers and secondary synergistic muscles.
  • Replication of true functional human movement can often be accomplished.

Free weight cons are limited.

  • Proper form is required or risk of injury increases. This includes body mechanics when starting and stopping an exercise.
  • As a beginner your coordination may be poor, giving you a feeling that you are out of control with the weight. This goes away over a few workouts.

With weight training in general being a little monotonous, I like mixing it up. I suggest using both free weights and machines to offer a variety of stimulus for optimal results, with more emphasis on free weights. If machines are the foundation of your workout program, you will get limited results and quickly plateau because only a limited number of muscle fibers are stimulated.

I also strongly recommend getting instruction on the proper execution of free weight exercises.  If I visit a gym and observe, most people are performing exercises incorrectly which limits results and increases that chance of injury.  A visit or two to a qualified trainer will give you many exercises to choose from for each muscle group, which is knowledge you can keep for life, and a very wise investment.

Whether you choose free weights or machines, the benefits of strength training are extraordinary.  Strength training increases your metabolism, which allows for more freedom in your diet. At the same time it gives your muscles firmness and a desirable shape. Strength training is the only true “fountain of youth” by preventing the loss of both muscle mass and bone density, which is a large part of the natural aging process for all adults.


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