Fitness Articles

Expert Solutions: Free Weights or Machines?

A Discussion with SparkPeople's Fitness Experts

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The Case for Free Weights
Free weights require you to stabilize and balance your body (using additional muscles), giving you a better workout in the same amount of time. You can also do a larger variety of exercises instead of being limited to the machines your gym has available. If you have a stronger side (for example, your right triceps group is stronger than your left), machines typically allow the dominant side to compensate for the weaker one. With free weights, you force the weaker muscle to do its share of the work. The negative of using free weights is that your risk of injury increases because it's easier to do exercises improperly. And because the number of exercises is endless, it's easy to create a program that's not balanced or omits exercises that target important muscle groups.

There are pros and cons to both machines and free weights, so a combination of the two can yield maximum results.

The choice to use machines or free weights is a very individual one and should be based on your overall goals, time available, experience, and injury history/risk. Here are some examples of how these variables will affect the types of exercises you might choose.

Overall Goals
  • General Fitness: Machines can give you a great foundation for general strength training, whether you're just starting out or aren't sure what your goals should be.
  • Functional Fitness: If you exercise to improve your ability to move and function in everyday life, then free weights will be a better choice because you can use them to mimic normal movement patterns, making them easier over time.
  • Muscle size and strength: Machines usually win in this case because they can really target and isolate a single muscle group while allowing you to lift more weight, which is crucial for developing size and strength. But ideally, a combination of free weights and machines will help build strength and size.
  • Specific fitness goals: The only way to get better at pull-ups is to do pull-ups. But if you're too weak to pull yourself up, an Assisted Pull-Ups Machine can help you get there. The point is that some machines can help you reach very specific fitness goals, such as this one.
Experience: I tend to recommend that beginners use machines because you really can't go wrong with them. Machines make it easy for you to do exercises correctly. Another bonus is that you don't usually need help or a trainer to figure out how to set up and adjust a machine—they usually have instructions and pictures on them, and even tell you which muscles you're working.
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Member Comments

  • FREE WEIGHTS, benefit more in the long run. Quality strength here in Tucson, Arizona, has a motto...: we build machines, we don't use machines! - 4/5/2015 9:53:22 PM
    What about resistance bands? Are they just as good for toning and slimming? I feel it the next day after working with them, but haven't really seen a comparison. - 3/15/2013 11:34:14 AM
  • I really didn't "get" Dean's comment about free weights when he referred to "dumbells". What about barbells? They are a legitimate alternative. - 3/2/2013 8:19:12 PM
    I was a free weight snob for a long time. I've been lifting on and off for 30 years. When I joined the Y they steered me away from the weight room. That was unofficially reserved for competitive and "serious" athletes. They started me on hydraulic resistance machines. I figured I'd do these a few months then graduate to the weight room. I ended up really liking these machines. Being computerized they remember every workout and increase weight automatically. They also increase the resistance where we are strongest and decrease it where we are weak like the old Nautalus machines did and they step up the resistance for the negative part of the rep. I found myself getting a better workout though I do know that unlike free weights they do not enlist all the auxiliary and stabilizing muscles. - 1/27/2012 5:33:22 PM
  • One advantage re free weights that wasn't mentioned. They can be done at home with minimal cost. They do not require a gym membership. - 2/3/2011 1:16:10 PM
  • Excellent article! Even though I have done strength training for years with both machines and weights, I learned alot from the coaches comments. It also may be helpful if you are unfamiliar with weights, to use a personal trainer for at least a couple of sessions for help with form. - 10/29/2010 12:08:15 PM
  • I'm getting an education in health and fitness! - 7/12/2008 1:00:20 AM
  • Itís interesting that more people in the poll chose free weights.
    I think itís a question of economics.

    If like me youíre on a pension, for about £100 ($200) you can set yourself up with a decent bar and dumbbell outfit, a mini bike and then all you need is self-discipline.

    Set yourself a target of a 2 hour session three times a week and youíre away.

    On the other hand, the gym requires money for each session, also a gym reasonably close so time becomes a factor, then you donít experiment and work out lifts and exercises which suit you.

    My worry, is that discussion about which is the better, will stop people getting started.

    To anyone reading these articles, who is wondering whether to get started Ė stop wondering get yourself a set of fixed weight dumbbells (good starters, and someone gave me my first set) study the Spark People site, build up your free weights as you build your body, and take a lot of notice of Nicole, from whom this 73 year old has learnt a great deal.

    - 6/19/2008 5:33:04 AM
  • I actually asked my personal trainer this one day, and she gave me the same answer whch is great...although I do prefer the machines because they are easier, I do both to make sure im getting maximum results and I love it :D - 6/17/2008 3:38:42 PM
    I watched my husband applaud free weights for years, now I go to the gym and use both free and machines. When I was just using the machines I* could feel the changes, but when I use just free weights there is a marked differerence. Free weight give me definition, especially in my arms. But I am doing both now. It is so much easier to do the machines, simply because you can adjust the weight so easily. I tend to make it lighter when It is hard. When you put your weight on the bar you don't take it off you just do it. - 6/17/2008 7:23:30 AM

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