Which Is Better Free Weights or Machines? Choosing one over the other would depend on your goals as well as your knowledge of your own biomechanics, in terms of proper exercise form. You would also want to know the difference between isolation and compound exercises. Both machines and free weights can serve a very different purpose and play an important role when developing an exercise programme.
Benefits of Exercise Machines:
- Machines are safer to use – if you are new to the gym, a lot of exercise injuries happen due to people lifting too heavy a weight with bad biomechanics (bad biomechanics is also referred to as having ‘bad form’ when performing an exercise). An example of bad form would be not keeping your back straight whilst performing a barbell squat or leaning too far forward, this could result in serious back injury. However, using a machine restricts your bodies movements and therefore makes you less susceptible to injury
- They can help you combat imbalances – our bodies are made up of opposing muscle groups, which basically means we have a ‘front’ and ‘back’ muscle stretching over each of our joints. A popular example in your arm would be your bicep (front muscle) and triceps (back muscle). If you’re not following a very good exercise programme resulting in your triceps becoming overly developed, you could ‘isolate’ your bicep with a bicep curl machine. This would ensure you work your bicep as efficiently as possible without affecting your triceps as much as you would if you were using free-weights
- Proportionality bigger body part – due to machines allowing us to better ‘isolate’ our body parts it’s easier to develop individual body parts. This would be for the sake of aesthetics, such as bodybuilding, some people want a bigger, chest, biceps or glutes. Machines can help develop these body parts to achieve the desired result
- Good for overloading individual muscles when you can no longer perform heavy compound exercises – It’s recommended when doing a workout, you start by exercising the biggest muscles first (performing compound exercises) however after a while of doing this your muscles would become fatigued. So machines, particularly those machines that are isolation exercises, are a good way to push your muscles further
Drawbacks of Exercise Machines:
- Not great for full body development – with machines mainly being isolation exercises it is therefore not advisable to only perform machine exercises in your workout plan. A healthy way of looking at exercise is to try and keep your body as balanced as possible in terms of muscle development
- Machines are ‘guiding’ – meaning they dictate how you move your body, so they don’t help develop stabiliser muscles (Also known as secondary or synergist muscles). So, if machine exercises are not put into a well-balanced exercise programme they can often result in an increased risk of poor posture or chronic injury
- Machines can give you a false sense of security – due to the simplicity of machine exercises they can be a risk of direct or indirect injury if, for example, they feel too safe or easy to use
- Machines are expensive fixed locally and require more room – Obviously not cost-effective compared to a barbell or set of dumbbells, so if you’re looking for a home workout machines tend not to be the best idea
Benefits of free weights:
- Free weights allow you to move more naturally – this means you tend to engage your stabiliser muscles more. Especially in full-body compound exercises (meaning exercises involving more than one joint) such as a Clean and Press. When performed with the correct ‘form’ free weight exercises can help develop better posture
- Free weights allow for a better Range Of Motion (ROM) – hence provide greater carryover to your daily activities. Dumbbells, in particular, are good for developing ROM, for example, dumbbell bench press allows you to ‘go deeper’ in the lower phase of the exercise than you’d be able to go with a barbell
- Compared to machines, free-weights provide endless variations – for example, you could combine weighted squats and military press, forming a superset, exercising different muscle groups together (legs and shoulders). Other variations can include, carrying, pressing, squatting, swinging etc
- They are less bulky and cheaper – working out from home with free-weight can be achieved for very little cost, easily storing them to one side until they’re needed
Drawbacks of free weights:
- Without knowledge of proper technique – it’s easy to get injured using free-weights. It’s recommended, if you don’t know how to perform a particular exercise you check out our exercise database for a detailed tutorial
- Sometimes dependant on other peoples help – heavy free-weight exercises, such as barbell bench press often require the help of a spotter (a person to support your heavier lifts)
- If performed incorrectly – slight difference in the weight or using the wrong technique can result in an imbalanced physique
Conclusion: Which Is Better Free Weights or Machines?
Generally, free weight exercises focus on total body strength and compound movements, while machines are good tools for targeting specific muscle groups (through isolation exercises). Looking at the benefits and drawbacks of machines vs free-weights, the chose of which one to use depends on you and your goal. Ideally, you should combine both into your workouts, developing a well-designed and balanced exercise programme that will allow you to meet your dream physique, level of fitness or level of strength.