Free Weights vs Machines

“Use machines ONLY”. “Use Free weights ONLY”. These are not phrases unheard of in the gym, some people preach to use one or the other but is one really better than the other?

Let’s have a look at some factors which may affect our decision…

Progressive Overload

A vital aspect of improving our physiques is ‘progressive overload’ which means in simple terms that we are consistently subjecting the muscle to more stress which leads to an adaptation in the form of increased strength and muscle growth.

So, can we make improvements on machines? Yes

What about free weights, can we make improvements here? Yes

So, if we can make progress on machines and with free weights, at least from this point of view both options seem reasonable to use.

Set Up Time and Energy

Machines are very easy to use most of the time. They can have a simple weight stack with a pin which takes very little effort & time to change and the weight can start off in a position where we’re ‘ready to go’. Contrastingly, free weights may take effort to pick up and get in position - shoulder presses are a perfect example of this.

Free weights on the other hand give more range of motion, you can change the path of the movement more easily and challenge yourself in new ways by just changing the way you lift the weight. With machines, the path of movement is usually rigid not giving you the extra movement.

When Injured

Injury…one of the biggest setbacks we can have when in the gym.

It’s certainly not fun when we get injured and it can cause challenges at the gym.

So, what’s the best approach when it comes to working out whilst injured?

Well, providing we are not making it worse and it’s ‘okay’ for us to workout, machines can really help us move weight, stimulate the muscle and limit the range of motion.

If we have a hurt wrist for example and want to do a chest press, using a machine where we simply push is probably going to be a lot better than dumbbells or barbells which we have to grip tightly and lift off of a rack which could be dangerous with a bad wrist.

So in this case, a machine can help use the muscle but not make the injury worse….then we can work towards using free weights again for certain movements.

Building Confidence

If we’ve not been to the gym before or we are returning after a long time off machines can be a great way to build confidence before we incorporate free weights into our routine too.

I’ve seen it many times when new lifters get intimidated by the more experienced lifters in the free weight areas. Machines are usually a lot more accessible and less daunting, using them and progressing on them can help you get used to a new gym, the atmosphere and the like before heading on down the free weight area!

For some people, using the free weight area is not an issue at all, however some people (for whatever reason) can find it uncomfortable. This may be a solution just like some people like to work out at home for a few months before they go to a gym.

So What’s the Conclusion?

Use BOTH… If your goal is to stimulate muscle growth, there are benefits of using both free weight and machines.

Some machines like Pullover machines are excellent as the free weight alternative is very difficult to do, with the machine you simply set up and go!

Exercises like squats and deadlifts are most likely going to be best using a barbell for most people and they have huge benefits for strength and growth - trying to do these effectively on a machine may be a bit of a stretch!

Some exercises and situations may suit machines, some may suit free weights - whichever gives you are more confident with (meaning you’ll push yourself) is a good place to start…see what works for you and enjoy!

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About the Author

Coach and Fitness Entrepreneur. Passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and eating as much peanut butter as I can get away with!
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