Free Weights Vs Machine Weights – Which is Better?

It’s no secret that when it comes to health and fitness, you should be prioritizing strength training in your workouts.

But not everyone knows how, many people go to the gym and when it’s time to lift weights…. they head to the machines.

​Is There a Muscle Building Winner?

Gym With Free Weights and Exercise Machines

But is that a bad thing?

This article will consider the pros and cons of free weights and fixed machines and clear up once and for all, what you should be doing when you lift weights in your attempts to build muscle.

What’s the Problem?

People have been arguing about whether free weights or machines are better for building muscle for years.  As with many things in fitness, fads come along and people start to follow them, without really knowing why.

At one point, everyone believed that they should be using machines.

Then with a change in ethos, free weights became the in thing.

Functional fitness became popular and people continued with the free weights, but due to myths like spot reduction, people still tend to use machines.

This has caused a lot of confusion and has left plenty of people wondering, what is better?

​Free Weights

Kettlebell and Barbells

Typically referring to dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and other items you can pick up and hold. They aren’t fixed to anything and work against gravity, using your own bodyweight, to complete the moves.

You can use free weights for everything, from the squat to the bicep curl to a more specific body part, such as the calf.

  • Compound exercises – A big pro for using free weights is the fact that the exercises you complete are often compound exercises. A compound exercise works more than one joint/muscle at a time, meaning you get more bang for your buck, from each exercise you do.
  • Functional resistance training – Functional resistance refers to exercises that mimic real life, for example, you squat every day, when you stand up or sit down, and using free weights allows you to work all the muscles involved, including your core, better preparing you for real life, everyday movement.
  • Full range of motion – Free weights allow you to move your body and the weights more freely, you’re not locked in position. This allows you to move naturally and ensures you’re getting the full effect of an exercise.
  • Stability and core strength – Having to stand, hold and move these weights without any machine assistance helps to stabilize and strengthen your core, leading to a stronger core and improved balance.
  • Easily adapted – As free weights are easily moveable, it means you have the freedom to change and adapt your exercises as you see fit, in the case of an injury or with a more specific goal in mind, for example unilateral work, which focuses on working one side of the body, is easily achievable with free weights.
  • Time and cost effective – If you’re not a member of a gym then having access to equipment won’t be a problem with free weights. You can purchase free weights anywhere and can easily build a home gym, including all of your favorite exercises without ever having to leave the house.

  • Increased risk of injury – As you are in full control of the free weight, it can be easier to get it wrong or do the exercise incorrectly, leading to injury. A common mistake is someone lifting heavier than their capable of, but that isn’t always the case. As you have an increased range of motion with free weights it is also possible that you may just do the exercise wrong and move the wrong way, leading to injury.
  • Can be hard to master – Some free weight exercises require a great amount of skill and it can take a while to get the exercise right. You should always ensure you’re clued up on how to do an exercise, hire a trainer or ask someone more experienced if you’re not sure how to do something properly.

​Machine Weights

 Machine Weights

Typically anything you sit on or in, weight machines are fixed to the ground and involve you pulling or pushing a lever or handle to complete the move. Most machines use a weight stack and you can select your weight by placing a pin into the stack.

  • Muscle isolation - Machine weights are a great way of isolating and working just one muscle. Leg extension or leg curl machines enable you to work the quadriceps and hamstrings without the hips or glutes getting involved. This can be very useful and ensures you’re working the right muscle every time.
  • Easy to use – Machine weights are easy to use and normally have a sticker on the side showing you what to do (and the muscles being worked).  Some machines even have a QR code on the side, which when scanned, plays a video of the exercise on your phone.  This means you can try something new and be confident of what you’re doing in minutes.
  • Good for beginners/special populations – As we said above, machine weights are easy to use. This means if you’re new to the gym, recovering from injury, elderly or have a disability, you can build up your strength and confidence in the gym with ease.  Of course these groups can also use free weights, but machine weights allow you to gain confidence first as you continue to improve.
  • Lower risk – Because machines are fixed, the chance of you dropping a weight or moving incorrectly is greatly reduced.  The nature of the machines also allow for you to try heavier weights without the need for a spotter and with less risk to yourself. Many of the machines allow you to just let go if you cannot complete an exercise.

  • Limited muscles workedMachines do not allow for multiple muscles to be used. A leg extension machine for example, will just work the quadriceps, or a shoulder press machine will just work the shoulders. Whereas this may be beneficial for some exercises, such as a bicep curl machine, it also limits the use of your smaller, stabilizing muscles which long term, could led to injury.
  • Not functional - Machines have the ability to help you to grow your muscles, but as they are fixed in position, they don’t allow for functional movements. For example, the seated leg press does not effectively transfer across to an everyday squat.
  • One size does not fit all - You will often have to adapt to the machine in order to use it properly as they do not consider different body types, heights or shapes. This can make it very difficult to use some machines as you may be too big or too small for a machine. This can be painful when trying to complete an exercise.
  • Sometimes they’re too popular - As we mentioned at the start of this article, because of their ease, many people will want to use the weight machines, but most gyms don’t often have more than a couple of each machine, this can mean that during peak times it can be extremely difficult to actually use a machine and stick to your workout program.
Barbells for Bicep Curls


Both free weights and machine weights have their positives and negatives.

Yes, if you’re new to the gym or are recovering from injury, then using the weight machines can be beneficial, however for the majority of gym goers, the positives of free weights, greatly outweigh the positives of machine weights.

You can complete many different variations of an exercise and can adapt almost anything to fit your specific needs.

Movements can mimic real life and the majority of exercises are functional.

You are also able to get more out of every single exercise with free weights by performing compound exercises.

Not only will compound exercises work more than one muscle and joint at a time, but having to hold the weight and keep your balance and posture, also ensures your core is working properly and your smaller stabilizer muscles are engaged and working.

It should however be noted that machine weights do have a place in your routine.

Some of my favorite machine weights are the Lat Pull-down, Leg extension and Calf raise and all make up part of my workout routine.  

But the key thing to note here is that the moves mentioned aren’t being included at the sacrifice of a better, free weight alternative, such as replacing the squat with a machine leg press. 

While I am going to recommend free weights over machine weights, it would also be my advice that machine weights can be a part of your routine and for some exercises I would actually recommend it.

However first, I would go through the cons list above and ensure the weights picked can be done safely and effectively and that there isn’t a substantially better free weight alternative.

Finally, as with losing weight, it is also worth noting that your nutrition is just as important for building muscle and should be a main priority of yours, if you’re trying to gain weight.

Anyone trying to add mass should be training correctly, with progressive overload on the muscles, and also fueling their bodies adequately to actually feed the muscles.

Doing this in addition to a solid training program will lead to muscle gain long term.

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