Free Weights vs Machine Weights (Which Is King)?

If you’re looking to get stronger by following the right approach, have a look at this discussion of free weights vs machine weights. I’m breaking it down for you so you’d know which one’s more effective for lean muscle gains. 

If you’ve just started with a training program and are on your way to beginning your fitness journey, you may have many unanswered questions regarding where to start with your weight training.  

Walking into a gym, you’ll see people combining free weights and machine weights alike for different strength training exercises.

You might have observed how some people are freely moving around using barbells and dumbbells. Others are noticeably performing movements with the gym’s machines, like using a pec dec, Leg press or pull-down machine.

Meanwhile, certain people are also combining both to make the most of their workouts. But is there really a difference between using free weights vs machine weights?

What should you do if you’re new to the gym? Should you simply walk up to a machine or have a go at the first barbell you see? 

Well, there IS a huge difference between free weights and machine weights, particularly in how they function and the results you’ll gain from them. 

Free weights are typically the dumbbells and barbells in the gym or any other free-moving objects. The machine weights are basically any gym equipment that aids you in weight training, from chest press and cable machines to multiple leg and arm machines.

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Let’s briefly look into how free weights differ from their machine counterparts:

Free weights- typically include barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and any other weighted objects you can freely hold and pick up. These free weights make your body resist gravity as you’re picking up these objects.

Common examples of free weight exercises are deadlifts, barbell bicep curls, bent-over rows, barbell squats and barbell bench presses

So, if you’re moving the weight from one point to another, and it’s only attached to you and isn’t supported by anything fixed, it’s a free weight movement.

Not only do you have to move the weight, but your stabilizers have to act in order to balance the weight at the same time. Because of this, you are working many more muscles then you would when using a machine.

Machine weights- Basically a machine weight will let you perform one particular movement in a fixed position. So no stabilisers will be needed to balance the weight as the machine does this for you.

In general, because the machine is acting as a strong stabiliser for you, you will usually be able to shift around a lot more weight than with a free weight.

For example you will always be able to squat more weight using a smith machine over using a barbell.

All in all, the main difference between free weights and machine weights is that you can move free weights any way you choose, heavily involving your stabilisers, while machines are already fixed in place.

Benefits of Free Weights on Working Your Muscles

When working with free weights, you’re going to experience a free range of motion due to the ability to move the weights in any direction.

You’re practically free to perform any movement you prefer with your body when you’re lifting these weights. For this reason, you’ll be pleased with the many advantages that come with free weight exercises.

Working Different Muscle Groups

First, using free weights enable you to build and strengthen many different muscle groups within one movement. In turn, you’ll be able to work on strengthening your entire body even if you’re not fully aware of it. You’re improving your coordination as well. 

It’s really the best thing about using free weights- they stimulate and strengthen more of your muscles compared to their machine counterparts.

Research has definitively proven that doing free weight movements activates more muscles therefore stimulating more muscle growth

If we compare a barbell squat to a smith machine squat again, it’s been shown that the barbell squat forces 43% more muscle activation over the smith machine.

What does this all mean? You’re getting a lot of quality body strengthening by exercising with free weights even with just a couple of movements within a short time. 

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Functional Fitness

Functional fitness involve exercises that can be applied for daily life activities. Free-weight exercises like squats and deadlifts are deemed functional because you can directly translate them to ordinary movements. 

For example, you’re great at doing deadlifts; you’re likely to do well in moving heavy boxes and couches as well. Because your body has been trained to pick up weights off the ground, picking up similarly heavy objects can be easier for you. Your body is already well-conditioned for it. 

Free-weight exercises are bound to have a wide range of real-life applications. Truthfully speaking, outside the gym, we’re mostly lifting free weights. Therefore, you need to work on strengthening your stabilizing muscles to support these movements. 

Ground-based resistance training using free weights is best for everyone. It should be a part of your routine so you can work on your form plus your stability and mobility as well.

Strength Gains with Little to No Imbalances

We don’t really notice we have muscle strength imbalances, but they’re there for a reason. Probably you may have had bad posture or are following an unbalanced exercise program that’s keeping you from developing a proper form. Even the absence of physical activity or certain movements you do in daily life can cause these imbalances.

One side of your body may be stronger or more dominant in taking more work than the other. That’s why your goal is to come up with an even balance of strength across your body and develop a good physique. 

Now using free weights, you can reduce these structural imbalances and allow your weaker spots to get stronger. Free weight exercises will require you to practice control and balance. More muscles will be activated to stabilize the weight, resulting in more gains. 

So, looking into these benefits of using free weights for building muscle, we can say that:

Free weights allow a hundred percent natural movement. 

These allow you to move through a wide range of motion that feels natural to your body. You’re not restricted in any way and not being limited to a certain fixed position that may not do well for your body. 

Free weights stimulate additional muscles. 

These include muscles that are sometimes overlooked. With free weights, you’re fully controlling the weight and working towards stabilizing the movements. In turn, you stimulate different muscle groups that are likely to be unused when you’re training with machine weights. 

Free weights are highly functional. 

They allow you to imitate actual movements that you would perform in real life, in the same way that you’d actually execute the movement. 

Free weights give you the chance to perform multiple weight training exercises even in your own home.

This makes them highly versatile as you can perform just about any strength training workout with simple equipment. They are also more affordable and will take less storage space.

However, there may be certain disadvantages when using free weights. They may be more difficult to learn at first compared to machines. It’s usually challenging to learn techniques and achieve proper form if you’re a beginner, although this is no reason to be discouraged from trying out free weights.

There may also be an increased likelihood of injury as with all types of exercise. You need to exert more control over free weights compared to machines.

If you try to lift a barbell that’s too heavy, especially if you’re lifting it over your head, this can be really dangerous. That’s why it’s best that you continually learn how to use these pieces of equipment if you choose to incorporate free weights into your training program. 

Benefits of Machine Weights on Muscle Building

While I personally recommend free weights to build and maintain muscle in the long run, machines aren’t a bad thing at all. In fact, athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts sometimes use these machines at the end of their training to target certain muscle groups.

Female doing TRX press ups

So here are some of the benefits of using machine weights for your training program:

Machine weights are good at targeting specific muscle groups.

Let’s say you want to strengthen your quads. However, you’ve just been through a tough set of squats and the muscles in your core, hips, and glutes are overly worked already. You can still sit down on a leg press machine or leg extension and work on your quads some more.

These machines are really quite good at targeting specific muscles. They may also automatically put you in the proper form without you having to work for it, which helps in yielding the right benefits from exercise (although there’s a huge disadvantage to this, which I will talk about later).

Machine weights are good for injuries.

When you’re experiencing aches and pains in one part of your body and you need to keep up with your training program, machine weights can give certain body areas a break.

For example, you’re unable to do deadlifts without experiencing pain in your back. You may still be able to perform exercises, let’s say, on leg machines. Or if you’re unable to do pull-ups, you can still go on arm machines, so working out won’t be a problem.

Machine weights are safe to use if you learn how to use it.

When using machines as instructed, you won’t get injured by the equipment itself.

It’s critical, though, that you warm up properly. This way, you can avoid pulling a muscle or experiencing an injury.

Just like with free weights, if you’re new to using machines, always learn the proper technique and form in doing so to avoid unnecessary damage to your body.

Female doing pull-ups

Machine weights are easy to learn.

Imagine walking up to a weight machine but not wanting to go to the trouble of asking for assistance. Well, you can simply read its instructions and slowly but safely adjust your preferred number of reps. It will take you only several minutes to learn how to use it for a complete body workout.

These machine weights are so well-structured that it’s not very likely to make mistakes when performing an exercise.

However, as easy as they are to learn and understand, machine weights are not as effective as free weights in building muscle. As I’ve mentioned, this gym equipment may automatically put you in the “correct form” and you don’t have to work for it as much as you would want to.

In turn, you won’t be able to build and strengthen the muscles that you mean to. You won’t get to stimulate stabilizer muscles as much as you would with free weights.

Using machines will also restrict your movement and are not as natural as free weight exercises. In short, you won’t get to condition your body with functional movements- movements that are normally done in daily life.

Also, machine weights are typically specialized towards working a single muscle group, which means you have to use multiple machines for a full-body workout.

Therefore, the efficiency of machine weights remains questionable in terms of building muscle size and strength.

My Final Thought

When it comes to the battle of free weights vs machine weights, then there is only really one winner. I think you’ve guided it already by now.

Yes, machines do a great job of focusing on certain muscle groups. They also help feed my ego as they allow me to pile on a lot more weight.

However, free weights are so much more efficient at building muscle mass. They activate more muscle, therefore, stimulating more growth, plus they benefit you much more to moving objects around in everyday life situations.

Whether you’re noticing it or not, you’re really working more muscles in a shorter period than with machine weights. Getting a complete body workout with just a couple of dumbbells, who wouldn’t say no to that?

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