Rage Against the Machine: How to Switch from Exercise Machines to Free Weights

Lego Robot

Let’s talk about machines.

Unless you can transform into a mac truck and fight the Deceptacons, or you’re a habit building robot, let’s talk about machines.

Every commercial gym in America is LOADED with treadmills, ellipticals, and dozens of weight lifting machines (aimed to hit every individual muscle you have). Yet, you may struggle to find the small free weight section buried the back of the gym.

For most people starting out, they finish up with their cardio/treadmill/elliptical workout, and then wander over to the machines.

Why? Because they’re the easiest thing to get started with…at least they look like the safest way to lift weights. And it’s a great place to start building the habit of strength training.

But let’s say you want to try training with free weights, but you have no idea where to get started.

Let’s jump into it!

Note: If you have a medical condition or injury the requires you to use machines for a particular reason, continue following your prescribed workout from your doctor or physical therapist.

Put on Bulls on Parade and let’s get started!

Why Machines Might not be the best!

Steve Ostrich

I can already see the confusion on your face, like this South African ostrich here.

Seriously, stop looking at me like that.

“But Steve, I thought weight machines WERE safe.  I mean, it allows you to pick up heavier weight than you could otherwise, and there’s no way you can drop it on yourself. It only allows you to move the weight in the direction it’s supposed to go!”

This is true!

Now, in some instances, machines might force your muscles and joints to move in an unnatural way.

When using a machine, your body is generally forced to move a weight on a single plane – up and down or left and right. The problem is, your body doesn’t move that way! It wants to move slightly up and over, or up and then over, or over and then up. Machines don’t let you do this, growing your muscles in an imbalanced way and putting your body, joints, spine in compromising positions.

On top of that, machines can lure you into a false sense of security because they do all of the stabilization work for you. Sounds like a good thing, until you have to use those muscles in a very particular situation I like to call “reality.”

When bending down to pick up your kid, grabbing groceries from the back of your car, boxing a kangaroo, or wrestling a grizzly bear for fun, your body is using wayyyy more than just one muscle at a time. It’s using dozens and dozens of muscles working in conjunction to get things done. But since you’ve kept the training wheels on your muscles for so long, they don’t know how to work in unison, so you pull a muscle.

So, let’s figure out some ways to start swapping in some free weight movements in place of weight machines!

How to transition away from weight machines

bad robot

The next step is to free your mind, free your workouts, and learn the truth:

Specialization is for professional bodybuilders, doctors, and robots.

Let’s stop thinking in terms of individual body parts. No more “this exercise works my inner thighs,” “this one works my bicep from this angle,” and “this one hits one of the three heads of my triceps.”  Unless you’re an elite body builder, you do not need to concern yourself with this style of training.

Instead, you gotta think big and simple

Imagine you’re listening a symphony of Legend of Zelda or Star Wars music.  Do you want to hear the tubas play their part for one song, and then the violins for the next song, and then the drums for the one after that?

Hell no, you want them all to play together so you can hear Gerudo Valley or Binary Sunset – that’s what creates the epicness of the music.

Strength training is no different. Your body is a symphony, and getting each ‘instrument’ to play separately is doing you a great disservice.

So stop thinking separate body parts and instead ask yourself: “What exercises can I do that produce the same results as these machines, but with just one or two exercises?”

Great question, I knew you were smart. And good looking. And modest.  Like me!

Let me show you.

Big free movements ARE The Bee’s Knees!

robot smash

Let’s take a look at a typical machine circuit workout week, designed to target all of your muscles throughout the week:

  • Monday – smith machine squat, hack squat, leg extension, leg curl, adductor, abductor, ab crunch, ab machine.
  • Tuesday – chest press, incline chest press, incline flys, chest cable flys, ab crunch, bicycles, reverse ab crunch.
  • Wednesday – lat pull down, back machine row, bicep curl, machine cable bicep curl, hammer curl, more ab work.
  • Thursday – shoulder press, shoulder raises, lateral shoulder raises, triceps extension, overhead cable triceps extension, more ab work.

Whew, I’m exhausted from just typing all that.

Instead, think in terms of how your body moves.

Nearly every movement will fit into one or two categories: PUSH or PULL.

If you are doing a particularly big basic lift or a body weight movement, completing a push or pull movement will recruit dozens and dozens of muscles from several muscle groups – not just your lower anterior _____.

Especially for newbies, you’ll benefit far more from working out your ENTIRE body each day just three days a week, compared to hitting five to six days of individual exercises. If you’re somebody that NEEDS to work out every day, spend your other two days attending a yoga class or going for a long walk (to Mordor, maybe?).

Why is it important to complete a full body workout?

By teaching your body to work in unison, you recruit so many more muscles and allow your body to function more as a single unit. This keeps you healthy and safe, avoiding muscle pulls and other injuries due to imbalance or issues associated with weak stabilizer muscles.

Combine this with proper healthy eating and you’re well on your way to burning fat, building muscle, and building a body you’re proud of.

On top of that, you never have to worry about missing a day and throwing off your schedule!  You simply complete the next workout, because each workout works out the whole body! BOOYAH.

So, just what are these big movements and how can I create a workout around them?

Master your body weight first


I love body weight exercises, and soon you will too.

Before you even start worrying about lifting weights, you should be able to dominate basic body weight movements first.

There’s just something primal, natural, and badass about being able to get freakishly strong without ever picking up a weight, am I right?

Just look at any gymnast, male or female – their bodies are built almost exclusively with body weight exercises.

So what are these basic movements?

That’s it.  Pick one from each, and complete 2-4 sets of each exercise for 8-10 repetitions.  Then, wait 48 hours, pick another one from each category and repeat. A full workout might look like:

  • Monday: Squats, Push Ups, Body Rows
  • Wednesday: Lunges, Handstands, Pull Ups
  • Friday: Box Jumps, Dips, Body Rows

“But that’s too simple!” Don’t knock it ’til you try it.  If it’s TOO easy, then make the exercises more difficult. Every exercise above has about a million different variations.  When you can say “too easy” to 4 sets of one-hand push ups, one-hand pull ups, and one legged squats, then we can talk. But don’t just keep adding more and more reps!  Once you can do more than 12 of something, up the difficulty!

“But those exercises are too difficult”: If the exercises are too tough (push ups and pull ups, maybe), follow the progression laid out in the links above until you CAN do pull ups.

“What about my abs?”: Your abs get a fantastic workout when you keep your core tight during your squats, push ups, and pull ups.  If you want to do more, feel free to mix in some core work like planks or side planks.

I want more workouts: How about the Batman Bodyweight Workout? Konami Code Workout? Angry Birds Workout? Beginner Bodyweight Workout? How do you like them apples?!

Learn basic strength training


Now, if you ARE interested in proper strength training, I highly recommend you take it seriously.

Barbells and dumbbells are your friend. Yes, even if you’re a lady Rebel (Staci has proven that).

There are a handful of movements that you should learn, then simply focus on getting really strong with these exercises:

That’s it! Pick one from each group, do 3-6 sets of 3-8 reps (3-5 sets of 5 is a good place to start) for each, and then go home:

  • Monday: Squats, Bench Press, Bent over Row
  • Wednesday: Squats, Deadlift, Overhead Press
  • Friday: Squats, Bench Press, Bent Over Row

That’s too many squats! 

Not according to Mark Rippetoe, the modern father of squats and author of the MUST READ Starting Strength.

If you ever plan on picking up a weight in your life, buy this book right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.  In my opinion, this is the best money you can spend on yourself if you’re going to lift weights.

A close second? Level Up Your Life 🙂

Don’t fear weights! And don’t fear the free weights section. Everybody back in there is too busy checking themselves out in the mirror to pay attention to you. Every exercise above can be done with barbells or dumbbells, though for pure strength, I would recommend barbells.

Nobody cares how much you can lift! Seriously, whether you’re struggling to lift the bar or you can squat 400 pounds, nobody around you cares! So forget them. Do your workout and get out of there! Make sure you are following the rules of a Rebel working out in a commercial gym.

Focus on form: Start with just the bar and spend the time to get your form right! As you get stronger you can add more weight SLOWLY each week and build momentum.  If you can afford it, hire a coach for a session or two and have them critique your form for the few exercises above.

But I don’t want to get too bulky or big, I want to lose weight/get stronger: Do the exact same workout as above.

Just eat less. Seriously, your workout shouldn’t change whether you’re trying to build muscle or lose weight…that is 90% dependent on your diet. Lifting weights won’t make you bulky unless you are eating specifically to do so. This stuff isn’t exactly rocket science: eat more than you burn to gain weight, eat less to lose.

Putting it all together


Now, you can do ONLY weights or ONLY body weight exercises, but the optimal progress and balance comes when you combine the two!

The best example of this would be my friend Jim from BeastSkills (his workout here) – Jim works out his upper body with body weight/gymnastic movements, and works his lower body with squats and deadlifts – the two greatest weight exercises for weight loss, building muscle, or just pure strength.

Now, Jim is a complete beast (see what I did there?),  so your workout probably won’t resemble his. That doesn’t mean you can’t do a healthy combination of body weight and weight training.

It’s also totally okay to slowly adjust your workout, just like with your diet. Pick ONE new exercise to learn each Monday.

Whatever you do, DO NOT be afraid the free weight section. Remember: 90% of the people back there will be doing bicep curls and looking at themselves in the mirror, so they won’t be worrying about you.  Do your thing. Get better. Get stronger.

What else can I do to help you never sit down at a machine again?  

What’s it going to take to get you strength training like a boss?

What other questions do you have?



photo: lego robot, bad robot, robot smash, deadlift, weights

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95 thoughts on “Rage Against the Machine: How to Switch from Exercise Machines to Free Weights

  1. I’m going to start the strengh program (squat, bench, overhead, deadlift, row) in one month (I want to be done with my actual program first). Actually I’m going to do the Stronglifts 5×5 program, which is exactly the same. Can’t wait to get strong!

  2. For push ups, I would do a pyramid type workout: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10. Of course I had to work up to this, but when I did I was able to max out with 70 or so push-ups  Sadly, my strength has gone down due to finals/laziness/injury over the last two months.

  3. I’m working my way through BBWW right now, but once I can easily do three sets of that, I intend to dive into Starting Strength and some Barbell work. Nice article.

  4. I lift a lot, I really do not like machines, as they tend to cause a loss of muscle balance, you never learn stabilization and I have proof they make you weaker. I lift with a person and he lifts on the cage, 230 lbs (bench). When here with my equipment  he can not do a dip or more then 135 on the bench. Why? He does not know how to actually move the weight or balance it. This causes his muscles to under react to the weight. Personally I do mid range weight (205-250 sets of 10, 20 sets) and body weight a lot it works! I was very big last summer and am now medium build (265 to now 191). So read what he says he is not lying. Proof is in the picture follow the link https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=570786312947046&set=a.153658641326484.31109.100000470465255&type=1&theater .

  5. I started the New Rules of Lifting for Women a few weeks back…I feel so badass passing the ladies on the machines. I just wish my gym was better equip with free weights.

  6. i switched to bench press with a barbell today. its frustrating to start, but i cant just do deadlifts and squats. no matter what. thanks for this one, it was exceptionally well timed for me.

  7. I am SO with you. I used to use machines, and they suck. You’ll get stronger, fitter, faster, and more awesome by doing bodyweight exercises and using some free weights here and there. 

    Avoid the machines at all costs!!! 

  8. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away (OK not really, it was 1997 and New Jersey) I joined a commercial gym and did the typical treadmill/weight machines thing.  That’s what we women did!  Then one of the trainers who worked there was bored and he introduced me to the free weights section.  He said, “Don’t bother with those machines, if you want to look great and get stronger, do free weights”.  He was right, and I have never gone near one of those machines again.  Fast forward a bunch of years and 2 kids later, and I have my own equipment in my garage, complete with barbell, dumbbells, weight bench, etc.  In summer, I bring things out into the driveway.  The neighbors must think I’m nuts, but I’m pretty sure I could deadlift my neighbors…..  Real women lift real things!

  9. I disagree about mastering your own body weight before starting weights.  I’m a heavy girl nerd, and so mastering my body weight, especially with upper body exercises, is really difficult and can be pretty discouraging.  Plus, I have strong legs, so bodyweight squats get pretty easy before I feel up for tackling something like pistols.  Using a barbell coupled with bodyweight exercises has been really successful for me.  I can challenge my lower body with heavy squats and deadlifts, and slowly increase my upper body strength by doing bench press.  And then I also work incline push ups and assisted pull ups.  But I don’t think I would have come as far as I have without all of those pieces.

  10. I JUST had this conversation with my boyfriend last night! Great timing. The gym we go to is packed with machines (and free donuts and pizza once a month, but that’s another post altogether). I don’t even look twice at the machines and try not to judge those using them. There’s one small free barbell in the gym and the rest are smith machines, so I put some weight on the free barbell for squats and deadlifts. The downside is I can’t get too heavy on the squats because 1) I don’t have the safety of squatting in a regular barbell holder thingy (is there a technical term for that?) and 2) since it’s not already on the holder I have to physical lift the weight above my head and place it on my shoulders. A great little extra lift but it’s really limiting how much weight I’m squatting. Le sigh.

    Anyway, great post. For anyone that is afraid to leave the machines, DON’T BE! Free lifting is so much more fun!

  11.  I think it depends on the person and what you’re shooting for. I didn’t want to go to a gym in the summer and did most of my work outs at home on days I didn’t run. So I did the angry birds workout for a couple months and did a TON of body weight squats. I’ve got pretty strong legs too so it didn’t take long to level up. Soon I was doing hundreds of body weight squats in a single work out, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. This has made my form absolutely perfect now that I’ve started weight training. I didn’t know this would be a benefit at the time, but I”m so thankful I did all those body weight squats to gain the flexibility and strength I needed to go all the way down. Now I’m definitely showing up all the dudes who think a squat means going down about 4 inches with the bar loaded! It’s pretty entertaining. =)

  12. It’s a lot better to do all at once. If you isolate, then you train push, pull and legs only one time per week. If you do full body workouts, you train all of them three times per week. That’s quite a difference.

  13. FaceAK – I have the exact same problem with getting the bar safely over my head – sometimes I can get one of the regulars to help, but more often than not I’m on my own in the free weights section/avoided by the scowly blokes doing bicep curls… still I’m slowly increasing the weight I CAN safely lift overhead – so it’s not all bad…

  14. Great article Steve!

    I try and tell anyone to stop fannying about doing bicep curls and tricep extension etc. Stick to the basic compound lifts and pulls.

    My biceps have developed so much, and I’ve not done a bicep curl in months. Purely from deadlifts, bench press, pullups and push-ups.

    Attempting the 150rep challenge at the moment:

    5 pull-ups + 10 pushups – repeat 10 times, as fast as you can.

    If you can’t complete the pull-ups, perform bodyweight squats. It’s a killer!!


  15. You definitely *can* get very far doing bodyweight stuff alone.  But I really struggled with bodyweight stuff meaning that weight increases came in large increments.  I can do knee push ups just fine, but full push ups are still out of my reach.  I can do incline push ups, but I find that there’s a very large difference between push ups at thigh level and push ups at knee level.  And being proficient at the one doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m ready to progress to the other.  Sure, I could just perform more reps, but at the end of the day, I really wanted to become stronger, not just increase my endurance.  In contrast, I find increasing weight on a barbell to be in small enough increments that I make easy progress.  And when increasing 5 lbs is too heavy, well then I have my microplates.  

  16. I started stronglifts 5×5 tis month, inspired by myfitnesspal And this website….it is amazing how much stronger I feel, and definitely feeling it everywhere. At first I thought only my things were getting the workout in the squats, and then I went to do a plank and my whole body, especially my abs, felt it….so the weights are definitely working everywhere!!!!! I am looking forward to seeing how it changes me over the next few months.

  17. I just started NROLW a few weeks ago as well.  Unfortunately, I’ve been doing the squats on a smith machine and only just realised how unproductive that is on reading this article!  Don’t think my gym has a squat rack so might have to switch back to dumbbell squats.  Sigh.

  18. Thank you for this article! I’ve been looking for a way to start strength training.  The books I’ve read seemed to complicated getting set up with the proper weight, sets/reps all that stuff.  This is fantastic for a beginner like me! So, thank you:)

  19. hey steve, i was just wondering maybe you can throw together a small fitness test for people, something that every end of the month or something people can test on it and from result can understand what is lacking, stuff like that.

  20. Hey Steve,

    What about a split push/pull routine?

    I currently do this:
    Bench Dips
    Leg Raises (I know this is a kind of pull exercise)

    Inverted Rows
    Single Dumbbell Row
    Bicep Curls

    Followed by 20-30 mins of cardio after the workout.

  21. Just wondering, would you recommend starting off with just the bodyweight exercises, then transitioning to free weight exercises, then combining them both together?

  22. I’ve never used machines as I always work out from home, but you’ve just convinced me to never do so, ever! 

    It’s not something I would’ve thought of, but it seems totally logical. Even though it’s at home I still use dumbbells (most of the time), and although they still give me full control (right?), you’ve inspired me to go for some more bodyweight exercises!

    Thanks, Steve, awesome article!

  23. I’ve been strength training a few months doing compound lifts with free weights and loving it. I wish it was more of a mainstream thing to do in a gym and they gave a little more space to the free-weighters than the dark dingy corners.

    I really wonder about the claim that machines are dangerous though. If they’re dangerous, how come so many people use them and don’t get hurt? I used machines for a couple of months before I switched to free weights, and it just seemed to me they are not as effective for the same reason that people like to use them, they do all the hard work for you.

  24. Another thing, there’s a lot of people who like doing the isolation routine stuff, so I wouldn’t write it off.  My best friend has been doing it for 20 years. I wouldn’t exactly call him a bodybuilder, at least not at this stage in his life, it’s just the type of workout that motivates him.  It’s not for me though.  If its not making me sweat and struggle, it’s boring me.

  25. how do you do heavier squats when your gym ONLY has smith machines and no squat racks and I don’t want to go back to dumb bells

  26. I do a weight workout similar to what you describe.  It’s competition prep time now, so:

    Day one: bench (heavy) overhead press for speed.
    Day two: squat (heavy) and deadlifts for speed. plus good mornings.
    Day 3: same as day one
    Day 4: Deadlifts heavy and squats for speed. plus good mornings.

    I throw in supplemental moves (rows, etc.) if there’s time, but limit all training to less than an hour. In between days are spent in yoga and the pool.

  27. This Article and motif is useful, if we would like a sport. Through
    higher fitness and better performance, the combination is simpler and
    you’re feeling great..

  28. To each his own! I use machines, love them, have a totally new, healthier, slimmer body because of them. I hate free weights. They are boring, and I never saw results like with machines. You won’t see any machine free gyms anywhere anytime soon!

  29. So if I mix 20-30% machine workout with 70-80% free weight workout; is it equally bad?

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