Fitness Articles

Expert Solutions: Free Weights or Machines?

A Discussion with SparkPeople's Fitness Experts


Free weights demand more control and strength. You have to have some idea of how to move correctly, which isn't as easy as it looks. That's why free weights and even some body weight exercises are more advanced than you might think. You have to think about a lot of things to do them correctly.

That said, you should never feel like you have to join a gym to use machines just because you're a beginner. SparkPeople's exercise demos offer precise instructions and photos to help you use good form, even at home.

Injury History/Risk: Although machines tend to be safe, not every machine is good for you. An exercise like seated leg extensions can aggravate the knees, so if you have knee problems, you'd want to avoid that machine and stick with regular squats or lunges (with or without free weights). In addition, machines allow you to lift more weight than you could probably do with free weights. If you have a bad back, lifting very heavy weights on a leg press, for example, can compromise your lower back. These are just a couple examples of how, depending on your risk level or history of joint/muscle problems, you might want to avoid certain machines entirely.

Beyond that, the best choice varies for everyone and every muscle. I use a combination of mostly free weights, and a few machines, particularly the cable cross (like Dean mentioned above). Sometimes the best way to really target a certain area of the body can be found in a machine; other times the most functional and safest way to strengthen a muscle group is with free weights.
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Member Comments

    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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