10 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Machines or Free Weights?

Machines or Free Weights?

If you're not sure what it is, don't use it.

When you first step into a gym, the sheer number of devices can be staggering. Benches. Machines. Weight racks in odd positions. Equipment that looks not unlike medieval torture apparatus. If you don’t have a good workout plan to lead you, things can become quite confusing.

The first decision you’ll likely make is the choice between using machines or free weights for your weight training exercises. I’ll help you make that choice, which may be easier than you expect.

The Case For Machines

Simply put, if you’re stepping into a gym for the first time, machines are a good way to start:

  • Easy setup: you can quickly adjust your position and the amount of weight without having to move heavy plates around.
  • Good form: machines normally force you into the right position for the exercise, helping you avoid injury.
  • Heavier weight: you can use the heaviest weight you can lift without a spotter, knowing that if you can’t get it up for that final rep, you won’t hurt yourself trying to set the weight down.

The Case Against Machines

The flipside to all this ease is that most machines feature isolated movements. This causes a few issues that may hold back your progress:

  • Positioning problems: if the machine isn’t adjusted properly, you may be putting too much stress on joints or working the wrong muscles.
  • Muscle isolation: because you’re in a fixed position, you usually won’t be working stabilizer muscles or secondary groups (like your abs). This means you may need more exercises for an overall workout.
  • No balance required: because you’re locked in and stabilized by the machine, you won’t develop balance as you would with free weights.

The Case For Free Weights

With a little knowledge, free weights can help you with overall fitness. They also give you options you don’t have with machines.

  • More complete workout: weight training with free weights will also work stabilizer muscles, and help you develop better balance. You can also perform compound movements that work multiple muscle groups.
  • Variety of exercises: A simple pair of dumbbells is useful for hundreds of exercises.
  • Low cost: you can buy a pair of adjustable dumbbells and a simple bench for your own low-cost home gym.

The Case Against Free Weights

Finally, the reasons you may not want to start with free weights. They really come down to experience:

  • Form required: It’s important to stand, move and squat in specific ways so as not to injure yourself. With heavier exercises, like the squat or deadlift, form is essential.
  • Spotter sometimes needed: to build muscle effectively, it’s important to lift heavy weights until failure (your muscles fail to lift one more time). However, to do exercises like the barbell chest press, you’ll need a spotter to avoid becoming trapped under the bar! In others, like the squat, you have to learn to “dump” (drop) the weight.


Machines are a great idea if you’re new to weight training and want a self-guided gym workout. But once you feel comfortable, start using free weights for some simple exercises. When you can study and practice the form for complex exercises like the barbell squat, you’ll make muscle gains more quickly and improve your balance.

Whichever you choose, make sure to approach your exercise with focus and intensity for the best results.

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