Step foot into most gyms and you’ll see a selection of both free weights and machines available for use.
Some people prefer the free weights and check themselves out in the mirror while they curl, others prefer the convenience of a seated machine.
Regardless of what you use at the gym, it’s important to understand the reasons behind both free weights and machines.
First, let’s discuss what “free weights” and “machines” consist of.
Free Weights and Machines
Free weights are classified as an object or device that can be moved freely in a three-dimensional space, whereas exercise machines are fixed to a specific axis and range of motion and are only able to move in a two-dimensional space.
Those who are new to working out may gravitate towards machines due to the comfort and convenience. Instead of properly working into a squat or hinge position you have the luxury of being in a seated position simply pushing or pulling weight. For instance, below you will find a picture of a pec-deck which is an exercise machine.
The illustration provided above is similar to one that you’d find on the actual machine. Want to work out your chest? Great, you walk around the gym, find this particular machine, read and review the illustration and start performing the exercise. Machines are more convenient and easier to perform and understand.
Now, free weights are a bit different. As we’ve already discussed, free weights are classified as an object or device that can be moved freely in a three-dimensional space. A barbell row, which is pictured below, is an excellent example of a commonly performed free weight movement.
As you can see, this exercise requires a lot more precision and attention to detail compared to a machine. What I mean is there are many parts to this movement to ensure it is done correctly and safely. While performing such a movement, you need to make sure your core is engaged, pelvis and spine are in a neutral position, glutes are tight, and that you aren’t using momentum to help you perform the exercise.
Check out this article for a more in-depth look at how to properly perform a bent over barbell row.
Machine Pros & Cons
- Easy to Use – As we talked about earlier, most machines always have instructions and proper guidelines to assist you with the exercise.
- Useful For Those With Restrictions – Perhaps someone is unable to squat or stand due to some medical/injury restrictions. Machines give them the ability to perform and target a muscle in a safe manner. For example, if someone is unable to perform a bent over row, they can use a machine similar to the one pictured here:
- Isolate and Target Specific Muscles – The most notable benefit of using machines is the ability to isolate specific muscles more efficiently. For instance, when performing a barbell back squat you have to use your quads, glutes, hamstrings, back, calves, and core. Well, what if you just want to focus on your quads? In that case, a seated leg extension machine is a great alternative to more efficiently target your quads.
- Non-Functional – As I discussed in a previous article, it is important to train with a functional purpose. In short, this means exercises that will translate to everyday movements such as a hip hinge or a squat. While machines can be beneficial, they greatly neglect ones ability to use their whole body to perform an exercise. Instead of learning how to properly squat and engage your whole body in the movement, you resort to the leg extension machine simply extending your leg.
- Ignore Stabilizing Muscles – Stabilizing muscles play an important role in keeping you injury free and supporting your posture. While these muscles aren’t the primary muscles being used, they act to keep your body stable and steady during an exercise. Again, using the squat as an example, when squatting your abdominal muscles (again check out this article), amongst other muscles, play an important role in stabilizing your entire spine to ensure you perform the exercise properly and don’t injure yourself. While using a machine, you ignore these important muscles which help keep you healthy and strong.
Free Weights Pros & Cons
- Perform Functional Movements – Squats, deadlifts, loaded carries, single arm row, these are all great examples of free weight exercises that translate to everyday movements we perform in real life. A good training program should always be able to carry over to our lives outside of the gym. Free weights give you the ability to train and strengthen these movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, lunge) over time.
- Engage and Train Stabilizing Muscles – Using free weights will help train stabilizing muscles which will again help keep you healthy and injury free.
- Train On-The-Go – Another great advantage of free weights is the ability to train wherever you are. Once you learn and understand all the major movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, lunge) it becomes a lot easier to train anywhere without a machine. Typically, when you stay in a hotel, they have a free weight area and one to two machines that only train one body part. Grab some free weights and get into a squat, deadlift, lunge, etc. pattern and get to training for a full body workout!
- Takes Practice and Patience – Don’t read this article and head straight to the gym to perform some heavy squats. Although that’s a great long-term goal, it’s important to practice and spend a considerable amount of time performing these movement patterns. Don’t know where to start? Work with a properly trained and certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach to help teach you these movements.
- Risk of Injury – As you get more comfortable with free weights and performing exercises such as squats and deadlifts, it’s can be easy to hurt yourself in the process. As the weights get heavier, it can be easy to slip up and perform an exercise incorrectly. It can happen to anyone, even professionals. Did you do something significantly wrong? More than likely you didn’t. However, when lifting heavier free weights it becomes critical that you pay attention to your form. Ensure you’re using all of your stabilizing muscles and performing each rep with precise speed and form.
Which is Better?
Ok, so we’ve listed a few pros and cons of both free weights and machines, but which one is better? When thinking about this question it’s important to consider many different factors. Factors such as age, level of training, restrictions, goals, etc.
Both forms of training have their benefits, and regardless of what I believe is superior, it’s important to first highlight what YOUR goals are and review your level of fitness before blindly jumping into a gym routine. Highlight what you want to achieve from lifting weights and move forward from there.
What would I recommend between the two? I prefer free weights due to their ability to train the entire body. Training with free weights forces you to use multiple muscle groups such as your stabilizing muscles and your core. This translates to greater strength and muscle development, leading to a greater longevity of injury free health.
Hope this helps! If you have any questions feel free to reach out to our trainers to help you reach your fitness goals!