Weight Training: Free Weights vs. Machines

By: Justin Carmel, DPT

Weight Training - Free Weights vs Machines, Which Is Better?

No single piece of weight training equipment is going to be best for everyone. Both free weights and machine weights can help you increase your strength, burn calories, and build muscle. The decision of using free weights or machine weights is based on personal preference, physical fitness level, individual fitness goals, and accessibility to various types of resistance exercise equipment.

Image of many types of free weights for exercisesFree Weights

Free weight training is adaptable and inexpensive. They can also mimic real-life lifting situations, while also encouraging total-body stabilization. Although they have a more dangerous reputation, free weights are generally safe when used with the proper technique, however, it may take some practice to get used to lifting with free weights, and it's essential to use good form.

Machine weight training can also be an effective weight training tool, as long as you use machines that adjust to your individual body’s dimensions and allow your joints to move through their natural motion paths. Machine weights are generally safe when used with the proper technique and people can also learn to use them quickly.

The main point is to choose a weight training system that you enjoy and that fits appropriately into your lifestyle. Whichever type of resistance exercise you choose, remember that proper form and technique are more important than the specific type of equipment.

What Is Resistance Training?

Resistance training is often referred to by those who go to the gym like weight training, but the term actually refers to any form of exercise where you lift, push, or pull against resistance. This resistance could come from using:

  • dumbbells
  • barbell
  • bodyweight
  • machines
  • kettlebells
  • power-bands
  • cables

What is the Difference Between Free Weights and Machines?

The main difference between free weight training and machine weight training is that machines are fixed in place and only move in specific directions whereas free weights can be moved in any way the end-user chooses. One positive aspect of free weights is that compared to machines they are generally more versatile and less expensive and can be a much more realistic option in terms of cost/space for those who are looking to set up a home gym. There is nothing to say that machine weights cannot also be effective weight training tools, but it is crucial to use machines that properly adjust to your individual body dimensions and allow your joints to move through their natural motion paths. 

In general machine, weights are safer when adjusted properly and used with the proper technique. Another great safety feature of machines is that you do not need a spotter like you would on certain free weight exercises that involve barbells or dumbbells.

Free Weight Exercises in Weight Training

Woman doing deadlifts in a gym with free weights using a barbellFree Weights

Free weight exercises generally include the use of dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells as the resistive force to work against. When using free weights for resistance training an individual’s goals can vary greatly. One may choose to train with slow/controlled reps and just isolate one specific muscle group with an exercise like concentration curls, whereas another individual may perform a compound exercise such as barbell deadlifts where they are targeting multiple large muscle groups at once, and yet another individual may choose to perform single-arm kettlebell snatches at high speeds to improve their explosive power/timing.

Can resistance bands replace weights? Click to learn the answer to learn Resistance Band Exercises.

The Best Type of Weight Machines

Man doing leg extensions on a seated knee extension machine in a gymWeight Machines

In regard to the best type of weight machines on the market that is a very tough question to answer and varies greatly depending on the individual. For the older adult population that wants to just simply move a pin to adjust their weight settings the Quantum brand machines work great, however, they can be costly and more complicated to fix compared to Hammer Strength Machines. 

Hammer Strength Machines

Hammer Strength Machines are my personal favorite in terms of weight machines for a couple of reasons. They are very simple and adjust easily to fit various body types. Additionally, Hammer Strength Machines are typically plate loaded machines, meaning you load your own free weights onto the machine for resistance, which for some is a negative aspect, but in terms of having to fix these machines, the potential mechanical issues are easy to deal with with with with compared to more complicated pulley/cable systems that only require you to move a pin to adjust the weight settings.

Related Articles:

The most common injury to occur when exercising is a muscle strain. Learn more about Prevention and Treatments for Muscle Strains here.

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