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Which Is Better Free Weights Or Machines?

When you enter a gym all you will see is state of the art machines, free weights, & cardio equipment to help you get fit. Some people use free weights to reach thier goals, some use machines, and some people use both. This brings up the question of which is better between free weights and machines. Does one have more advantage over the other? Which one of these can help you burn fat and add muscle faster? Let's see what are the benefits of each and which will help with your fitness goal.

The first time you use a machine you will notice that it's pretty easty to learn and use. If you can't figure it out they usually have pictures showing the instructions, or you can always watch some one use it first before you too. Machines are good for size and strength because since your body is stable your are able to target the lager muscle groups more efficiently. You will also be able to use heavier weights without needing a spotter.

  • Non-functional – Although machines will make you bigger and stronger, they don’t train complete human movement patterns (See: primal movement patterns) that are necessary to, well, move. Perhaps the worst machine is the Smith Machine which locks you into place for heavy exercises like squats and bench and doesn’t take into account different body types, which is a recipe for disaster. Weight machines just don’t translate well into strength and fitness for daily activities, not to mention athletics.

  • Neglect smaller stabilizing muscles – Since you are isolating target muscle groups, the important stabilizing muscle groups around the joints take a back seat. If you neglect these smaller muscles for too long, you run the risk of chronic injury and poor posture.

  • May cause injury directly and indirectly – Although safer to use with lower levels of skill, it is still possible to use too much weight and enough poor form to cause a serious injury. Overloading the same movement day in and day out is also an easy way to set yourself up for an overuse injury. Form is important and like anything else the danger is in the dose!

  • Fill up during peak hours – If you have ever worked out in a commercial gym during peak hours you may have noticed that every machine in the place seems to be filled up. Instead of waiting for that guy that has been on the machine bench press for 20 minutes to get up, head over to the free weight area for some more breathing room.

Who Should Use Weight Machines?

  • Beginner – Someone who is very new to the gym and doesn’t know how to properly utilize the free weights just yet. Even though there are pictures on the machines I recommend asking for a personal trainer’s advice for proper use.

  • Bodybuilders – When size and aesthetics is your main goal there is a lot of efficacy to using machines to pump up those muscles! For a better more well-rounded physique I do recommend a combination of both weight machines and free weights though.

  • Rehab – Machines may be an easy way to rehab an injury if you don’t have a physical therapist or trainer to work with you. Once you are feeling better it may be better to move to bodyweight exercises and take preventative measures.

Free Weights – Pros and Cons

  • Allow you to train functional movements – This could be a topic on its own, but basically free-weights and bodyweight exercises have greater carryover to what you do in real life such as daily activities as well as athletics.

  • You can use full range of motion – You have complete freedom to move around rather than being locked into a specific range of motion or pattern. This allows your body to do what it is naturally built to do, move.

  • Place a greater demand on stabilizing muscles – Using free weights will activate more synergistic stabilizing muscles while you are training. Will help to keep your joints healthy and fully operational when done properly!

  • More bang for your buck exercises – If you have limited time to train and want to get a lot accomplished with few exercises then free-weights are the way to go. My two favorites are deadlifts and Turkish get-ups. There isn’t a muscle in your body that doesn’t get worked with these two alone!

  • Allow for endless variation – With machines you are really limited to what you can do depending on what is available. With free weights, all you need is one dumbbell and you can do hundreds of different exercise variations. One of my favorite circuits to do is to choose one dumbbell and do as many exercises as possible for time. Press, squat lunge, swing and carry are just a few!

  • Train anywhere – Learning how to train with free-weights or body weight allows you to literally train anywhere since machines aren’t always available. When I go on vacation and travel by car it is easy to bring a kettlebell, some bands and a TRXto get in some quality training.

  • Less expensive – Free weights are the way to go if you don’t have access to a gym since they are much less expensive than machines. You can easily build a killerhome gym for under $200!

  • Takes some skill to learn proper technique – Free weight exercises have a higher learning curve than machines and you may need someone to show you proper technique. Having a trainer show you or reading a book on weight training may be the way to go. Take your time and try to avoid creating bad habits by copying others that have bad form (e.g. Youtube).

  • Greater risk of injury when not done properly – When using bad form it is easy to move a bodypart or joint out of proper alignment and tweak something. This can cause injury so make sure you know what you are doing and use the appropriate weight.

  • Need a spotter to lift heavy weight on squat or bench press exercises – Some exercises are difficult to improve on if you don’t have a training partner or which may slow down progress. At the very least you can ask a trainer to check your form and maybe give you a quick spot. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Who Should Use Free Weights?

  • Most people – Pretty much anybody can benefit from using free weights properly to build a strong and lean body using a good program like the one here at BuiltLean. It is important to build functional strength and muscle to be able to do the things you enjoy and stay active later in life!

  • Athletes – To compete at high levels and remain injury-free, athletes’ bodies have to move synergistically and the best way to achieve this is to train the same way. A combination of free weights and bodyweight exercises is the way to go!

  • Bodybuilders – The best way to get bigger is to get stronger and the best way to get stronger is through free weights. Once you build up your strength, you can add in some weight machines to isolate and ‘build’ specific muscle groups. I recommend the bulk (no pun intended) of bodybuilding training to come from free weights but it is ok to add in some isolated machine work too!

  • Rehab – Free weights may speed up the rehab process by adding in functional movements to get you moving and feeling better. They may also help you get back to the condition you were in before your injury much faster than using machines would.

Free Weights vs. Machines: Recommendations

For my own strength training programs, I prefer to use mainly free-weight exercises that focus on compound movements and total body strength. Every once in a while, though, I will throw in some bicep curls or use the row machine to change it up a bit.

I hope this list helps you decide which is best for you. At the end of the day, the form of strength training you choose should be based on what your goals are and what makes you feel good. After all, isn’t that what exercise is all about?


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