Free Weights Vs. Machines
In the left corner, we have Free Weights the home of Kettlebells, Dumbbells, Barbells, and anything else you can pick up! In the Right corner, we have Machines the basic pulley system. This will be an interesting fight between resistance training! Who's ready for this epic match up?
"Let's Get Ready To Rumble!"
We all know resistance training has many benefits like getting HUGE! Wanting to build more muscle mass or looking at getting stronger is going to require lots of resistance training. When you walk in the gym you might be intimidated by all of the options of equipment, machines, and people. For those unsure how to use free weights they might be more inclined to use the easier faster version machine.
Most gyms have a selection of both free weights and machines. So let's go over the basics of both
Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and anything you can pick up and hold.
Machines include anything you are on or sit on that you pull or push a level through a specific mothing. Examples are the leg extension, peck deck (flyes), bicep curl machine, or the hip adductor/abductor machines. Usually, these machines have handles and use pulleys to lift weights from a stack.
What about cable machines coach? Well, cables have both characteristics of free weights and the typical machine. Using a cable machine requires you to pull on a handle attached to a cord/cable, which in lifts weights from a stack. So the cables are a machine, but they don't provide one specific range of motion like a machine. Therefore, cable machine exercises have something in common with free weights too. For the sake of this blog, we'll leave cable machines out of this matchup between free weights and machines.
Machines are easier to learn
Good form is essential to using free weights to prevent injury. If you are new to resistance training walking right on into the gym to use free weights might not be the safest idea and might not be an option if you don't know what to do. Weight machines usually have instructions on the side of each machine which you can read before performing the exercises. It only takes a few minutes to learn how to use the machine and adjust it according to height. The machines are also structured to make it difficult to do something wrong on the machine.
Good form is key to lifting free weights. Lean a little too far one way or another when you are doing a dumbbell exercise, and you might not even be working the muscles you intended on working. Machines make it a little less hard to cheat your form.
Free weights work more muscles at a time
Free weights work multiple muscles at a time and work a lot of tiny muscles you didn't even know you had. Take a squat for an example. A squat works your quads. If you use the leg extension machine you work the same muscles. If you squat with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells you are engaging more than just your quads. Your inner and outer thighs muscles are engaged, your butt, hamstrings, and core all help keep your body steady and depending on how you hold the weight your arms could be working too.
Machines working just one specific muscle isn't always a bad thing. If you already did squats but you want to keep working your quads but your hips and core are really fatigued you can sit down and use the leg extension machine to specifically work on quads without engaging other fatigued muscles. Bodybuilders often use machines at the end of their workout to target specific muscles they want to work on.
If you are recovering from an injury or in need of physical therapy functional exercised might be a part of your recovery program but most patients make the fastest progress when they target specific muscle groups with machines.
If you have some achy muscles machines are great to give them a rest. Anyone with mobility issues who might have a hard time squatting, lunging, or bending over might find machines more useful.
Sometimes the free weight section of the gym might be packed with all the bros and gym veterans, and the hulk. The ease of using a machine might be much less intimidating to somebody new to working out or something with a really busy schedule who can't wait around for weights or a bench to become free. This goes the same for machines too, if machines are busy you might opt for weights instead. If you are flexible with your gym routine you can pick options that are less crowded and you'll have double the amount of options to use.
There is definitely more planning involved with using free weights. You need to get the right weights/plates, the right equipment (i.e. a bench, squat rack, decline bench), and space in the gym. Free weights can also require a spotter which might not always be an option for you. Sometimes it takes a lot more time to set up your free weight space and equipment then to just go to the machine.
The matchup up conclusion
The verdict, both are really useful and it depends on your goals! Both machines and free weights can have a place in your exercise regimen, depending on your fitness levels and goals. No matter what you decide to use, proper form is the most essential thing when it comes to working out.
Personally, I would declare this a win for free weights because you can work more muscles in less time than with machines. Not only are you working more muscles but the movement is more functional and more real-life movement than a machine. Machines have their place in the fitness world for rehabbing injuries, to isolate muscles groups, or to lift heavier and aren't sure of form or don't have a spotter on hand for free weights. I also like to use machines when I'm just not feeling it at the gym or if I'm feeling sluggish. On some of those "off" type days using, machines can still be a huge benefit but keep in mind movements isn't the same as using free weights.
When To Use Free Weights
When To Use Machines
If the gym is busy
On your off day
To work a specific muscle when the rest of your body is fatigued (ie Max set of 3 pullups and then using the lat pulldown machine to keep working your back)
To rehab an injury
Isolating a specific muscle
If you are new to working out
Lack of mobility (ie. if you are pregnant)