Free Weights vs. Machine

This week, we’re going to look at a topic that comes up from time-to-time, especially with beginners. I often have beginning trainees ask me, “Should I use machines or free weights when I train?”

Walking into a gym for the first time can be a bewildering experience for a beginning trainee. There are free weights, then there are exercise machines including Hammer Strength, Icarian, Flex, Body Masters, Cybex, Universal, Polaris, Life Fitness, and the list goes on and on. 

So the question is, “Are machines better than free weights, or are free weights better than machines?”

The one common trait of both machines and free weights is that they are used to apply variable resistance to your muscles. I don’t consider cable and pulley devices such as lat pull down, triceps push down, and high/low cable pulley apparatuses machines in the strictest sense.

Cable and pulley devices actually change the direction of resistance only. For example, a triceps pushdown uses cables and pulleys to change the direction of the resistance from “straight down” (the resistance you feel if you are holding a barbell in your hands) to “straight up.”

Cable and pulley devices may look like machines, but mechanically speaking, they only change the direction of the resistance. This allows you to perform movements that would ordinarily be impossible to do otherwise with free weights. Cable and pulley devices are very simple from a mechanical standpoint, but allow you considerable degree freedom of movement.

Free weights are also fairly simple: barbells, dumbbells, plates, and not much else. That’s not to say that you can’t work the entire body with only barbell and dumbbell movements. On the contrary, barbells and dumbbells are the most flexible tools you will find in a gym because of the great degree of freedom they offer, a freedom that is ordinarily impossible with the use of machines, which typically lock you into one or two planes of motion. 

Now let’s take a look at machines. Machines are usually constructed of heavy duty steel tubing and contain pulleys, cams, and cables. Machines lock you into a predetermined plane of motion on an exercise. This does not allow you, the user, the variety, or degrees of freedom, you would normally enjoy when training with free weights.

That’s not to say that machines are bad; it’s just that machines limit the exercise to a predetermined track dictated by the machine’s design. This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage of machines is that they are hard to use incorrectly! This is a blessing for a beginner.

For example, there’s not much you can do to mess up a movement such as a machine bench press. On the other hand, performing a free weight barbell bench press for the first time can be a lively experience. Beginners often miss the “groove,” or natural plane of motion along which the muscle works naturally. The result is an uneven exercise form. One arm gets ahead of the other, shaking is next, followed by a general lack of control.

Now, weight training is not just about building muscles. It’s also about building neurological pathways between the brain and the muscles. These pathways must be developed fully before you can achieve complete control of any given exercise. And this is one of the areas where machines can offer you an advantage.

By forcing you to stay along a predetermined plane, machines give your body a chance to adapt and develop its neurological pathways to the degree where you’ll feel more comfortable with the free weight version of the exercise later.

In a sense, machines are more “two dimensional” than free weights. Free weights are more “three dimensional” in that they allow more complete freedom of movement.

Another disadvantage of machines is that not every machine is suitable for each body type. With few exceptions, many people on the extreme ends of the height spectrum (very short or very tall) cannot use most machines effectively.

An advantage of machines that beginners can benefit from is the guidance that machines can provide in developing proper lifting techniques. As you become more advanced in your training, you should incorporate more free weight movements. This brings into play auxiliary muscle used by the body to balance and coordinate weight-training movements.

Let’s look at the bench press machine example again. With a bench press machine, you’re locked into a particular grip width determined by the design of the machine. With a free weight bench press, on the other hand, you can adjust the width of your grip to suit your body type and/or to put more emphasis on certain muscles at certain times. For instance, a shoulder width grip on a bench press stresses the pectorals to a greater degree than a shorter width grip; i.e. a six-inch wide grip, which stresses the triceps more.

Free weights also allow you to develop strength, which is more useful in real-life lifting/strength movements. And this is particularly important if you are training as an athlete. Free weight exercises lend themselves well to this purpose. They not only stress the main muscles responsible for the movement but also muscles that contribute indirectly to the movement, by providing stability.

Using free weights promotes coordination and enhances the mind muscle connection.

Before we end our discussion on machines vs. free weights, let me also add that machines can be invaluable if you have a training injury and wish to lock yourself into a plane of motion on a particular exercise to avoid undue stress on an injured area. So you see, machines lend themselves to a rehabilitative strength-training regimen as well.

It’s been my experience from my many years of bodybuilding and instructing others in the proper use of exercise that the use of both machines and free weights ultimately allows one to develop the best all-around look along with useable, everyday strength. Train hard and progress!

About the Author: Lee Labrada

Lee Labrada is the founder and CEO of Labrada Nutrition, makers of Lean Body protein shakes. Lee’s mission is to empower you with the nutritional products and the know-how to get into great shape and be healthy for life.

One of the world's best-known bodybuilding legends, Lee Labrada holds 22 bodybuilding
titles, including the IFBB Mr. Universe. Lee is an inductee of the IFBB Pro Bodybuilding Hall of Fame. He has appeared on the covers of more than 100 fitness magazines and has been featured on CNBC, FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and ESPN as a fitness and nutrition expert. Lee is the best-selling author of The Lean Body Promise and co-founder of Lean Body Coaching. He is also the Host of The Lee Labrada Show. Check out his podcast here.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.