Machines vs. free weights

Free weights or machines, what is better? This debate has been around forever, and while most people prefer one over the other, it can be helpful to look at the benefits and drawbacks of both of them objectively to be able to put together the most effective workouts.

Free weights:

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  • When doing exercises with free weights, in addition to the muscle you are targeting, you need to use several other muscles including your core to stabilise yourself. Therefore, you increase your overall strength and burn more calories with a free weights workout than you would with a machines only workout.
  • Free weights exercises require more coordinative skills than machines, so in addition to strength, they make you work on improving your coordination as well.
  • Working with free weights allows for more variety with your workouts and moves because of how versatile they are. They can be used in so many different ways!
  • Depending on the weights you use, free weights can be portable and can therefore be used anywhere anytime; including at home if you have a little bit of space.
  • Free weights allow you to always work through your own full range of motion, while the range of motion can be restricted with some machines.

  • With free weights, you have to take gravity into account. The tension on the muscle that you are targeting varies according to where your weight is in relation to gravity. With an upright bicep curl for example, your weight provides you with the most resistance at a 90° angle at your elbow, when your forearm is parallel to the floor and it provides you with barely any resistance anymore when you have curled all the way up, which means that with free weight exercises that have gravity come into play you cannot provide your muscle with similar tension over the whole range of motion.
  • With some free weight exercises like the bench press, you will need a spotter to minimise the risk of accidents if you want to train to failure.
  • Because of the coordination and body control that free weight training requires in addition to strength, it may not always be the best option for complete beginners.

 

Machines:

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  • Because the movement is guided and requires little to no stabilisation, machines may be a good option for complete beginners to build a basic level of strength and confidence before moving on to free weights. The guided movement might also help minimise the risk of accidents and therefore injury for beginners as the chance of doing the exercise completely wrong  is small.
  • Machines are great for isolating specific muscle groups which means they make it easier to train only that one specific muscle group that you are trying to target with an exercise. If you for example did a few sets of barbell squats and wanted to focus on burning out just your quads afterwards, the easiest way to do that would be on the leg extension machine.
  • With machines, you can train to failure without a spotter without having to fear dropping a weight on yourself.
  • Machines are great for drop sets because you can just quickly reposition the weight pin without even having to move, therefore minimising unwanted rest time between weight changes.
  • Machines are built to keep the tension on your muscle similar over the whole range of motion, which means that your muscle has to work against the same resistance at any point throughout the whole movement regardless of gravity.

  • Machines tend to be built for the average size person, so if you’re way taller, shorter, bigger or smaller than average, you might not be able to adjust the machine settings correctly for yourself.
  • Because movements are guided with machines, they offer less variety than free weights and are less versatile.
  • You most likely need a gym membership to use them.
  • With a machine only workout, you are working less muscles in total than you would with a similarly constructed free weight workout.

 

Cable machines:

Cable machines are somewhere in the middle here and have some of the benefits of both free weights and machines!

 

To conclude, both free weights and machines have their benefits and drawbacks and how you use them in your workouts will mainly depend on your goals, training experience and what training equipment you have access to. There’s no rule that states that you have to choose only one or the other. If you have access to both,  why not take advantage of that and combine them in your workouts to get the best of both worlds?

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