Expert Solutions: Free Weights or Machines?

It’s a classic question with no right or wrong answer. If you want an effective strength training workout, should you use free weights or machines? Which option will help you reach your goals? SparkPeople’s Fitness Experts voice their opinions on this hot topic.

As a certified personal trainer, I always recommend that people try to include both free weights (dumbbells) and machines in their strength training workouts. Here are some of the advantages of using machines:
  • They are easier to use (proper technique, form, etc.).
  • They better isolate one muscle for a more intense workout.
  • They ensure that you move with proper form through the full range of motion.
  • They allow you to lift heavier weights.
  • They reduce workout time (less time spent setting up, changing, and putting weights away).
  • You are less likely to injure yourself when using machines.
The disadvantages of using machines are directly related to the advantages. Most of the things we do in daily life involve using multiple muscles and joints at the same time. Because machines isolate muscles and work them separately, you end up making individual muscles stronger but aren’t training yourself for “functional fitness.” Likewise, because machines are adjusting, balancing, and supporting your body, the smaller muscles that would normally do these tasks in real life often don’t get exercised or strengthened.

But by incorporating both free weights and machines into your workouts, you can utilize the advantages of both and avoid the limitations of relying on either one by itself. For example, try doing one chest exercise using a chest press machine, and then add a couple sets of dumbbell flies; use the leg press machine to maximize the amount of weight you are lifting, then add a couple of sets of walking lunges with dumbbells, for balance training.

If you find the idea of using the free weights in the gym too intimidating, most gyms have a “cable cross” machine that offer many of the benefits of free weights with the convenience and safety of a machine. Ask a staff member to help you find it and figure out how to use it or check out some of SparkPeople's Cable Cross demos.

The Case for Machines
Machines are great if you're new to strength training or unfamiliar with how to target specific muscles. Most will have instructions and a diagram so that you can see how to use them properly. It's also easier to maintain proper form using a machine because the equipment is designed to support your body as you do the exercise. Machines are good choices if you don't have much time (assuming there's not a crowd of people waiting), as it can be quicker to adjust the weight on a machine than with free weights. Sometimes people are intimidated to try strength training because they aren't sure what to do, but machines can help overcome that barrier since they are so user-friendly. The negative is that machines do not give the variation or range of motion that free weights provide. Most machines have a two-dimensional movement pattern.

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.

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.