How to Decide Between Using Weight Machines and Free Weights, According to Trainers

Photo: Stocksy/ Javier Díez
When I strength train, I alternate between using weight machines and free weights, and the choice is usually based on my mood or whichever option is available at the time. But is one objectively better than the other? According to experts, there are pros and cons to using weight machines vs. free weights. However, both types of strength training equipment have benefits.

Experts In This Article

“At the end of the day, both can develop strength, so it depends on your personal preference,” says Mark Kumar, CPT, a personal trainer at Crunch Fitness. Vince Sant, co-founder of online fitness platform V Shred, echoes this sentiment, adding: “While strength training with machines and free weights both have their benefits, there are a few major differences to note before deciding which one to use.”

Ahead, experts break down the differences between weight machines and free weights, the pros and cons of each, and how to decide which type of strength training equipment is ideal for you.

Weight machines vs. free weights: what’s the difference?

For one, weight machines and free weights differ from each other in terms of how they work: The former lets you train one or two muscle groups, while free weights work multiple muscle groups at a time. Additionally, free weights typically require more stability than weight machines.

“Because weight machines are fixed in place, they will allow the user or individual on the machine to move a heavier load because they don’t have to worry about the stability of the movement,” says Kumar. When using free weights, folks have to think about maintaining the proper form to execute the movement, requiring balance and the use of additional muscles, which he says demands more of the body. Given their differences, there are pros and cons to using each.

The advantages of weight machines

1. They’re beginner-friendly

A major perk of using weight machines is that they are often user-friendly (with options like the chest press machine and seated leg press machine being among the best machines to use at the gym for beginners). Many strength training machines have instructions with illustrations that help users figure out what to do and how, with a small margin of error of use. Machines also follow a fixed path, making them an ideal option for those who are learning the proper form for a particular exercise.

“If you’re new to a movement, a machine can … help in learning proper mechanics,” says Phil Timmons, program manager at Blink Fitness. Those with limited experience might also appreciate that weight machines provide the support and stability that free weights do not—and in that way, they can properly execute a movement without worrying about maintaining balance as they work through the motions of an exercise, says Kumar.

2. They target specific muscle groups

Weight machines can also help you focus on one muscle group at a time. “It’s much easier to target the muscle group that you want to work [when] using weight machines,” says Christi Marraccini, an instructor at the online platform NEOU Fitness. What’s more? “You are able to move more weight since some of the weight is being supported by the machine and not your body,” she says.

Since weight machines allow you to isolate particular muscle groups, they’re generally less taxing to use as they focus on working the primary muscles and less on the stabilizing muscles (or the muscles that work to keep you steady as you perform an exercise), says Sant. Consider, for example, a chest press machine in comparison to a dumbbell bench press. They will both work your chest muscles, but when you perform a dumbbell bench press, your body will have to work harder to keep you stable, while the fixed range of motion of the chest press machine will support you through the movement and eliminate the need for extra effort on your end.

3. They’re safer to use

According to Sant, “Machines have less risk of injury because you’re not freely moving weight around.” While a machine’s weight is typically fixed to the equipment, free weights must be held and balanced, which can pose a risk if you were to, for instance, accidentally drop a barbell mid-squat or execute a movement with improper form.

That, of course, isn’t to say that weight machines are risk-free. You can risk injury when using a machine, and more so when it’s used incorrectly. Additionally, machines are ideal for folks recovering from an injury, as they won’t have to engage an injured area or those with limitations who require alternatives for a particular exercise, says Marraccini.

The disadvantages of weight machines

1. They work fewer muscles at once

Since weight machines isolate specific muscle groups, this also means that they recruit fewer muscles—and though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “it’s easier to be a little more lax on a machine,” says Kumar. As mentioned, weight machines don’t typically work the stabilizer muscles—and these, he says, are important for not only your physical fitness but also daily life. Working on your stabilizer muscles becomes all the more essential as we age. “With the aging population, stability declines, and you want stability for simple tasks like walking up and down the stairs or standing and sitting,” he says.

2. They’re less accessible for some people

Weight machines are large pieces of equipment, and due to their size, they’re less accessible for folks without a gym membership or the space or funds to invest in these pieces for a home gym. Weight machines also aren’t as accommodating to a wide range of body sizes and heights. As Kumar says, “Machines, depending on the maker, might not be for the user.” A machine, for example, might limit your ability to fully execute an exercise or, conversely, force you to extend beyond what’s safe for your body.

The advantages of free weights

1. They’re more versatile

There’s a reason why dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells are called “free weights.” According to Sant, “You have more free range of motion because you can move the weights in any way you please.” For instance, you can perform combination movements that simultaneously work your upper and lower body or try variations of an exercise—unlike weight machines, which limit you to the specific movement for which it was designed.

2. They work multiple muscle groups

“Using free weights allows you to work various muscle groups, depending on the exercise, as well as strengthen stabilizer muscles,” says Sant, and working on your stabilizer muscles will not only help improve your overall strength but also your balance and coordination. Additionally, free weights allow for unrestricted movement through all planes of motion, making them ideal for functional training, which mimics the movement patterns you would perform in daily life, whether it’s carrying a bag of groceries or moving heavy objects.

This offers free weights an edge over weight machines: “When you push something in real life, you typically won’t have your back up against an immovable object to help you,” says Timmons.

3. They’re accessible for most people

Free weights, like dumbbells and kettlebells, are more compact—and not to mention less expensive—compared to strength training machines, making them ideal for folks looking to purchase budget-friendly pieces for a home gym. For instance, you can find adjustable dumbbells that not only save on space but also make ideal weights for beginners.

Free weights are more inclusive workout equipment compared to their machine counterparts. You can adjust the movement patterns to suit you when using free weights, not vice versa. Plus, you aren’t restricted to the weight range of a machine, so you have more options to select a weight that’s appropriate for your fitness level.

The disadvantages of free weights

1. They require more technique

When using free weights, it’s typically up to you to make sure you’re executing exercises correctly, as opposed to strength training machines that help users maintain the proper form. As such, beginners can expect a learning curve when using this type of strength training equipment. They might even want to employ the help of a certified personal trainer to ensure they’re performing exercises correctly to mitigate the risk of injury.

2. They have a higher risk of injury

Considering that free weights often entail more know-how compared to machines, they can also carry more risk of injury. “One thing to look out for with free weights is a higher risk of injury due to having to control your own form,” says Sant. As mentioned, there’s more chance of accidentally dropping free weights or losing your balance, which can further increase the risk of injury. That’s why it’s important to not only practice proper form but also keep safety top of mind when using this type of strength training equipment.

Mistakes to avoid when using weight machines or free weights

Regardless of whether you use weight machines or free weights, safety is always a main priority—and you’ll want to watch out for these common mistakes when using each.

Weight Machines

  • Failing to follow the instructions: It’s important to follow instructions listed on a weight machine or if they’re unavailable or unclear to you, to ask for clarification from a fitness trainer. Paying attention to the instructions will not only allow you to maximize the benefits of a particular machine but also prevent unwanted injuries.
  • Using the incorrect setting: Most machines allow you to adjust the settings to suit you, and it’s important to select settings that let you perform the movement properly. If, despite adjusting the settings, the machine isn’t comfortable to use, you’ll want to avoid using it altogether and opt for an alternative exercise.

Free Weights

  • Improper form: When lifting with free weights, the proper form is imperative to prevent muscle strain or injury. If you’re learning a movement using free weights, opt to use your body weight or lighter weights, or if possible, work under the supervision of a personal fitness trainer to avoid this common weight-room mistake.

When to use weight machines vs. free weights

When it comes to selecting between weight machines and free weights, there are instances in which you may want to opt to use one over the other. While weight machines are more beginner-friendly, can isolate specific muscle groups without causing fatigue throughout the body, and pose less risk of injury, free weights are more versatile, work multiple muscle groups (including smaller stabilizer muscles), and improve overall strength. If you are making a choice based solely on preference? “Mix and match whatever you are comfortable using,” says Kumar.

Frequently asked questions

Is it better to use machines or free weights?

Weight machines and free weights have unique benefits, so one is not better than the other. Machines are ideal if you want to learn the proper mechanics of a movement, have an injury, or want to work on one or two muscle groups at a time. Conversely, free weights work multiple muscles at once and also improve balance and coordination. Both, however, can improve your strength and overall health—and using a combination of both types of strength training tools can compound their benefits.

Is it okay to use just weight machines?

While it’s okay to use just strength training machines if they’re the only option available, you’ll miss out on certain factors that free weights can afford you. For instance, free weights not only work your primary muscles but also your stabilizer muscles, which improve your balance and support functional movements that you would typically rely on in your daily life.

What are the disadvantages of weight machines?

Weight machines have a few disadvantages. While weight machines allow you to isolate specific muscle groups, they don’t recruit your stabilizer muscles, which are an important factor in building overall strength. Weight machines aren’t also accessible for everyone—most people will require access to a gym to use them, and they don’t always accommodate a wide range of body sizes and heights.

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