“ Are free weights better than machines “ – asked every person ever at one point in their lifting career.
It is a solid and fair question.
You see some people using machines, some using free weights, some using cable machines.
So, what is the best?!
Well, we are going to talk about what the “best” is in this article.
Before you enter the Narnia of weightlifting, just promise me your b*tch a** won’t skip through the article and read it word for word.
Yes, I just called you a b*tch a**, but it is out of love.
As well as out of getting your attention to make sure you read the whole way through because we are going to dive in depth.
I want to be sure you leave this article without any shadow of a doubt knowing which is the “best” for you.
Cool. Let’s do it.
Are Free Weights Better Than Machines
Pros Vs Cons
When talking about are free weights better than machines, I think what is often missing is something called context.
You know, that thing we all are missing these days in a 24/7, quick, short social media world we live in.
There has to be context when answering this question because depending on what you are looking for, the answer is (my favorite answer) it depends.
I encourage you to not necessarily think about which is “better”.
I encourage you to think about the pros and cons of all of them, because the truth is, they all have their pros and cons.
Let’s look at some of them for each category here below. Once we go through this, I think you will have a better understanding of when one may be “better” than others.
I am going to talk about 3 main forms of equipment here.
Machines (Machines you would find in the gym)
Free weights (barbells, dumbbells)
Cable Machines (like these here below)
Let’s first start with machines.
Machine Pros Vs Cons
When talking about using machines in the gym, there can be many pros that appeal to a large amount of people.
For starters, a machine is very SIMPLE.
You get into the machine and simply perform it how it is intended. They usually have either instructions, pictures, videos, or all the above attached to them to show how to use it.
For someone who is a beginner in the gym and may not exactly know how to perform exercises correctly, this can be quite appealing for obvious reasons.
There is little error to “f*ck up” a machine for lack of better terms.
You just kind of get in and go along for the ride.
Whereas something like maybe say a squat, a deadlift, a lunge, that requires much more of a concentration on form. You will have to spend some time learning how to do that movement correctly.
Now, I don’t think you should worry about this, because we ALL were a beginner once inside the gym where we didn’t know how to do something.
Hell, I have been lifting weights for almost 11 years as I write this, and there are STILL things I do “wrong” in the gym to this day.
Yet for a lot of people who are beginners in the gym, the idea of doing a machine that is “fool proof” for lack of better terms can be a great way to get you started in the gym.
For this reason I think machines are AWESOME.
They can get you in the gym.. Get over your fear of maybe starting out.. Get you more comfortable going in…
Through coaching people the last 7+ years I have seen that a lot of people start out at the gym on machines and then feel like they can start to venture out into other areas of the gym with a better mindset.
Therefore if this is you, I think this can be great and can be a massive pro to machines.
Another Pro Is…
Remember how we just talked about a squat, deadlift, lunge, shoulder press, etc, is inherently going to be a bit harder to learn.
One of the reasons for this is that you need to be able to control and stabilize the weight (which could just be your bodyweight for now!) through the range of motion.
Imagine if you are doing a shoulder press.
You need to take two dumbbells, in each hand, and be able to stabilize that through the whole way up and the whole way down.
That takes a LOT of work for your muscles to do, both your bigger shoulder muscles as well as your smaller stabilizer muscles.
( Hint: This may be a “pro” you see later on in the article…).
Whereas with a shoulder press machine, you don’t have to stabilize the weight through the range of motion.
That’s why the machine is there, it does that for you.
Therefore you can potentially be more confident in your movement and decrease risk of injury ( especially for complete beginners).
Even if you aren’t a beginner, you will usually be able to lift a bit heavier weight on a machine.
This is due to once again the machine takes out the stability factor, allowing you to overload the weight even more.
This is often touted great for hypertrophy (muscle building) training.
The more stability you have the more you will be able to contract the muscle & create something called mechanical tension.
More Stability = More Mechanical tension = More muscle building.
Single Joint Isolation Exercises
To piggyback off of the previous pro about stability, it makes a great pro for single joint isolation exercises.
For example a leg curl or a leg extension.
In both of these exercises you have ONE joint working, your knee joint.
You are intentionally trying to isolate one muscle. As opposed to say a squat where you have multiple joints working at once, working multiple muscles at once.
Therefore since you have high stability with a machine you can focus on ONE specific joint and muscle maybe a bit more than you would be able to with free weights for example.
You can hammer home that one muscle and take it closer to failure because you don’t have to worry about stabilizing your body or the weight, you can solely focus on smashing your muscle as best as you can.
Which again, going close to failure is something that is necessary to get maximum hypertrophy.
So if you are doing exercises that you are trying to focus on one joint and one muscle at at time, machines may be a great option for that.
So, machines certainly have some pros to them.
Yet, they also have some cons. Let’s cover some right now.
One con to using machines is the fact that a machine is not individualized.
Meaning, I am writing this right now as a 6’4 250lb male with long femurs (thigh bone) and long arms.
You reading this may be a 5’3 160 lb female with short femurs and short arms.
How in the actual hell is ONE machine supposed to cater to both of us?
If I was to step into a squat machine versus if you were to step into a squat machine, we would inherently need completely different set ups / executions of the movement.
Not to mention what if you are someone who has different mobility / range of motion than someone else.
For example if I don’t have the best overhead shoulder and thoracic mobility (thoracic = middle / upper part of your spine) then an overhead machine press doesn’t take that into consideration.
It can’t change the range of motion, the angle, the bar path, the hand placement, etc. It can only go in ONE direction on ONE track.
Whereas for example if you had dumbbells and you were sitting on a bench, you can adjust the bench.. You can adjust the angle at which you press up, your hands, and where the dumbbells travel..
There are so many adjustments based on your specific needs as opposed to a machine, you are really limited to what the machine can do.
This can lead to some injury over time if you are trying to force this, kind of like trying to force a round peg into a square hole.
Is going to be actually taking the same “pro” we talked about earlier, stability.
Now yes, having the machine take the stability out of the movement for you can be a positive thing, yet, it can also be a negative thing.
Remember, context matters.
If your goal was actually to build some stability in your joints so that you can have a healthy aging process, improve balance, or simply be as strong as you can in a “well rounded” manner..
Then you would actually want to train and strengthen the stability aspect of your movements and not have a machine take that out for you.
You wouldn’t want to do a machine overhead press or a machine row, you would want to do a free weight press or row to help build stability strength.
Which, for the record, I do recommend you training your stability and getting stronger in that area because this is not just about looking good naked.
Yes, that is cool, and nothing wrong with chasing some aesthetic based goals.
Yet what also matters is maintaining a high level of health. One of the main reasons people check into a nursing home is because they can’t sit up and down off the toilet on their own.
Building strength and stability in your joints is incredibly important, therefore, I recommend training it so you can have that in your toolbox.
So as you can see, are free weights better than machines can really depend on what context you are asking from.
Machines have both pros and cons.
I mentioned I was going to briefly touch on cable machines as well, so let’s do that now.
Are Free Weights Better Than Machines : Cable Machine Pros Vs Cons
One of the great pros I love about cable machines is that you can challenge the muscle from different ranges of motion.
I spoke about this in a recent article I wrote, I can link that HERE if you are interested to read after this.
Yet what cables can do is provide a different way to hit the muscle, let’s take your triceps for example.
When you are using ONLY free weights or even ONLY machines, you might be missing out on challenging the muscle in a certain range of motion.
There are 3 main portions of the range of motion throughout an exercise.
The shortened, lengthened, and middle position.
For example if you are doing dumbbell skullcrushers, those challenge the muscle in the lengthened to mid positon.
If you are doing this tricep extension machine, again, challenges the muscle in the lengthened to mid position.
Yet, when you can throw in something like a tricep pressdown, this challenges the tricep in the shortened position.
This way you can challenge the muscle in ALL areas, which can improve your strength as well as the aesthetic appearance of the muscle.
So not only does it allow you to challenge the muscle from a different range of motion, it is very adjustable as well.
You can adjust where the cable is coming from, where you position yourself at, you can add different attachments to go unilateral, bilateral, etc.
Also, you can adjust YOU with the cable machine. You could stand or kneel. You could face it or face away from it.
There are just so many options you can do with a cable machine that it makes it hard not to be able to include it in your training.
One con that cables potentially brings about is when doing multi joint compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, RDL’s, overhead presses, etc.
The reason for this is because with the cable, inherently the resistance is coming at an angle.
You can work to position yourself as close to the cable as you possibly can, but the resistance is usually NOT just a straight up and down force like it would be in a free weight squat.
If you have a barbell on your back and you are squatting, you are fighting a force that is up and down, that’s it.
You aren’t dealing with a resistance that is coming from angles because quite frankly you don’t want to deal with that while doing those styles of movements.
Reason being is it can lead to injury over time by having more or less an “unnatural” movement pattern or force resistance.
As well as with a cable machine you are usually limited on the load you can use / the set up you can perform.
A cable stack usually tops out at what maybe 200ish?
Once you get to a certain level, you are inherently going to be able to squat or deadlift more than 200lbs.
Therefore if you ONLY used a cable machine for those moves you would be limiting results.
Because of this, cable machines are usually left to accessory / isolation movements (rows, pulldowns, bicep curls, lateral raises, etc).
I would recommend leaving the compound movements up to free weights.
Now that we know cable machines are a great option to add to the debate of are free weights better than machines, let’s now cover free weights.
Free Weights Pros Vs Cons
We have already touched on a massive “pro” when it comes to free weights so I will keep this part brief, but being able to adjust it to YOU.
Remember, everyone has different..
- Limb lengths
- Joint structure
When using a machine, it does not take any of this into consideration.
Yet when using something like a barbell back squat, even though the barbell can’t move, YOU can move throughout your range of motion.
For example if you are like me and you have long femurs, to keep your spine neutral, you are inherently going to have to lean forward more in your squat.
Yet if you are using a squat machine where the pad is completely upright, you don’t have that option.
That is going to lead to injury over the long haul, as well as simply not being able to work your muscles as much as intended.
Yet with a free weight barbell since it can move through space ( Trippy ) you can move however YOU need to to make it work for you.
Or for example with dumbbells and a chest press.
If you are someone who needs to close your shoulder joint a bit more to be able to get a proper range of motion with your chest press, you can adjust the dumbbells as needed to face each other a bit more.
You can also adjust the arch of the weight path to fit what would work for your shoulder.
With a chest press machine, you aren’t adjusting the handles or the arch of the machine. You are confined to whatever the machine is set up as.
Therefore using free weights is going to allow for more individualization to each movement.
As Well As…
Another pro to free weights is having a “functional” workout.
Now, that term is thrown around a lot, all I mean by this is you can learn how to move & control YOUR body through a range of motion.
If you are using say only a leg press, yes it can hit your muscle as intended…
But if you are going to go outside and have to take a massive step and lunge to avoid stepping into a puddle…
You can have control of your body because you are doing lunges.
Or if you are an athlete and need to make cuts on the field / on the court…
You can have control because you were doing squats.
Or if you are needing to pick up and move heavy boxes…
You can have control because you were doing deadlifts.
There is no denying that using free weights is going to translate into “functional” movements on a day to day basis.
As well as just being able to have control of your body moving through space, which I think is often underestimated by many people.
Even something as simple as falling. Again, how do most older people get injured? By falling and breaking their hip right?
Now, to be fair, ANY type of resistance training is going to help prevent this, but lifting with free weights can help teach body awareness, which may help even more.
Briefly, this also goes right in tune with what we talked about earlier with free weights being able to train the stability factor of your muscles and joints.
There isn’t to my knowledge a better way to train stability and strength better than lifting some free weights.
To piggyback right along with that, lifting free weights is inherently going to work more of your core strength / stability.
Well, you guessed it, you have to control the weight AND Your body through a range of motion!
When you are doing a shoulder press you are NOT just working your shoulders, you are also working your shoulder stabilizers as well as your core.
Or if you are doing a deadlift you aren’t just working your legs, you are working your hip stabilizers as well as your core.
Your core HAS To work to stabilize the weight and your body / limbs moving through a range of motion.
Therefore, free weights can be a great option for ANY movement really. Bigger compound ones like squats or deadlifts for sure.
Or even smaller ones like bicep curls or tricep extensions.
Though I may give a slight advantage in some scenarios to machines or cable machines for some specific muscles in this scenario, still a really good option.
Now, there are some cons to free weights.
Again, as mentioned earlier, you are going to need to stabilize the weights. This can sometimes take away from the weight you lift in SOME exercises, or make them more difficult (though, more difficult isn’t always a bad thing!).
As well as you are going to need to learn how to control the weight / your body through a range of motion.
While this may be a “pro”, it can also be a “con” because it DOES take a little bit longer to learn.
Yet, I think the payoff is worth the work.
So… Are Free Weights Better Than Machines?!
Okay, I know you came here looking for the answer to are free weights better than machines and the truth is IT DEPENDS!
Hopefully as you can see they all have their pros and cons.. To summarize a tad bit..
- I would generally pick free weights to be the STAPLE of your training program. This builds a solid foundation and generally speaking gives you the most bang for your buck (works core, stabilizers, teaches you to control your body, etc)
- I would leave the bigger compound movements up to mainly free weights
- Machines can be great for complete beginners starting off and or if you are really looking to isolate ONE specific muscle during a single joint exercise ( leg extension, leg curl, calf raise, bicep curl )
- Cable Machines can be incredibly versatile and used for a lot of compound & isolation based exercises
- A “con” might be a pro, and a “pro” might be a con, depending on your goal / how you choose to utilize the equipment you are using
Point being.. You don’t need to pick JUST ONE!
You can and SHOULD use all of them in your training program.
One isn’t “better” or “worse”. They all have their benefits and when used properly can all be great tools in your toolbox you can use for seeing the best results.
I hope this article helps you see that and if you are looking for getting your training programming done for you, I can link two great options here below that myself and my team offer.
First is going to be our Clubhouse. This is where I create a new training program each month for the group. You can check that out HERE below.
Or, if you are looking for more in depth 1:1 coaching with our team, you can fill out our application form HERE.
Either way, I hope this article helped, and look to chat soon!