Free Weights vs. Machines: Which Will Get You the Better Workout?

An industry expert weighs the pros and cons of different types of exercise equipment

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Which is a better workout, strength training with free weights or with resistance machines?

Lots of beginner gym-goers frequently ask this question, but as is the trend with most questions about exercise, the short answer is, it totally depends.

Because there are advantages and disadvantages to each, it actually depends on several different factors, so there’s no truly simple, clear-cut answer.

“It’s difficult to say one is necessarily ‘better’ than the other,” said Bowflex fitness advisor, Tom Holland. “The short answer would be, it depends. It depends on goals, fitness level, access to equipment and a few other factors as well. They both serve distinct purposes.”

That said, Holland did note that if he was forced to choose one over the other he would go with free weights, simply because they’re more versatile.

To clarify, free weights refer to equipment pieces such as dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells, whereas resistance machines refer to devices such as the seated leg extension, seated shoulder press and seated chest press, just to name a few examples.

Each have their own benefits and disadvantages, so it’s important to take your own level of fitness and your goals into account when deciding which is the best option for your individual needs.

The Benefits of Free Weights
“Free weights allow for an infinite number of exercises, they are more functional, they are less expensive, they are great for sport-specific training, they don’t take up a lot of space, they are perfect for home use and you can work your entire body with just a few sets of weights,” Holland said. “Or in the case of Bowflex SelectTech dumbbells, one set.”

Essentially, free weights allow for a much wider range of versatility on several different levels. And while Holland noted that pretty much everyone can benefit from working with free weights, given they’re working with the appropriate exercises and amount of weight, he said they’re particularly beneficial for people who want to exercise at home, anyone training for a specific sport, advanced exercisers and those who want to “to significantly sculpt their bodies.”

The Benefits of Resistance Machines
“Resistance machines are perfect for both novice and older populations of exercisers,” Holland said. “They don’t require the stabilization, balance and coordination that free weights require. Resistance machines are therefore utilized to build a safe, initial base of strength, then the exerciser can properly transition to the more challenging free weights.”

Holland noted that because machines tend to only allow movement in one range of motion (therefore eliminating instability), they are best suited for exercisers who are rehabilitating an injury, beginners who are just starting a new workout program and older populations.

Working with machines, Holland said, will allow the exerciser to build basic strength and neuromuscular connections.

Why Not Use Both?
Since one method isn’t necessarily “better” than the other and they each provide their own unique benefits, there’s no reason both free weights and resistance machines can’t be incorporated in an effective workout routine together.

“Variation is one of the crucial components to success in fitness,” Holland said. “Our bodies adapt quickly to our exercise program so if we don’t change it periodically, our bodies will stop changing. Using a mix of both free weights and machines is therefore the best approach for the vast majority of people, not only to continually challenge our muscles, but our minds as well. I personally use both.”

Below, Holland outlined what he calls a simple yet extremely effective way to vary your routine:

Monday: Free Weights
Wednesday: Machines
Friday: Free Weights/Machines Combo

Don’t Forget About Safety
Holland emphasized the importance of weight training safety, especially for those working with free weights.

“Free weights provide the greatest freedom of movement and this can lead to injury when exercises are performed incorrectly,” he said. “Make sure you always use proper form and select appropriate weight that you can control. Avoid swinging and using momentum when lifting free weights. Focus on creating muscle time-under-tension by lifting the weight on a two-count and lowering it a little more slowly, on a three- or four-count.”

If you’re new to weight lifting, it’s a good idea to practice on machines first and an even better idea to work with a professional in order to ensure you can perform exercises correctly before going off on your own.

That said, though they offer more stability machines need to be approached with safety in mind as well.

“Always make sure you are fitted correctly in each machine,” Holland said. “The settings can be vastly different for a  5‘2” woman than for a 6’4” man. Ask a qualified trainer to show you the correct settings for each machine as well as the proper form.”

The Final Verdict
Holland said when it comes to strength training, no matter what type of equipment you’re using, it all comes down to the “overload principle.”

“When we overload a muscle during training, we break down the muscle fibers and force them to repair themselves,” he explained. “It’s during this process that we gain strength and build lean muscle. We can overload our muscles with both free weights and machines.”

The key, Holland said, is to work with an amount of weight that’s challenging but allows you to maintain proper form, regardless of whether you’re using free weights or machines.

“If it challenges you, it will change you,” he said.

More Reading:
Why All Women Need Strength Training
The Surprising Ways Lifting Weights Will Change Your Life
Fitness and Health Myths You Need to Stop Believing Now

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