What’s Better – Free Weights or Machines?

For those of you with limited time in the gym, you need to be concentrating on exercises that work and recruit as many muscles as possible. 

Sure you can use a machine and work out a single muscle group decently, but your range of motion is extremely limited – you can push it out, and then lower it back to the starting position.

Although this certainly helps prevent injury by not allowing you to drop weights on yourself, it’s limiting the amount of work your muscles can do in the same amount of time.

If you’re a daily reader of the blog, you know that I am a big fan of efficiency.  If you can get more done in less time, why do anything else?  Because of this fact, I strongly prefer free weights to machines for many reasons.

  • When you use free weights, your body has to use every single muscle to keep the weight stabilized as you raise and lower it. Because you’re using these extra muscles (that you’re not using if you’re on a machine) to keep things steady as you lift, you’re getting more done in less time!
  • Because you’re using free weights (like dumbbells) you get to work both your left arm and right arm independently, instead of using a barbell you can find out if your body is out of balance.
  • Machines often put your body in weird positions or at odd angles which can cause injury (shoulder press machines, pec deck machines, etc.) I’ve learned to stay away from because they put unnecessary stress on unwanted muscles and joints at funny angles.
  • Free weights make you feel better about yourself (this is my own opinion).  You see a weight, you pick it up.  The next time you’re there, you either try to pick up that same weight more times than before, or pick up a heavier weight.   If you’re on a machine, you’re just pulling a pin or turning a dial.  It’s not as easy/fun to see the growth.

Now, there are a few things to consider when using free weights, and that is the safety factor.  If you don’t have good form, or you don’t have a spotter, you can get “injured bad” because you could drop the weights on yourself or mess up a muscle by doing it incorrectly.  Make sure you practice perfect form, and really concentrate on isolating the muscles used in the exercise and you can see greater gains in the same amount of time.

This is why I prefer to do incline dumbbell press instead of a chest press machine, squats with a barbell instead of in the smith machine, straight pull ups instead of lat pull-downs on a machine.  It seems more natural, more muscles get recruited in the process, and I get more out of it.

Here is my routine now. I keep it simple, I use free weights, and I’m seeing great results.


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    43 thoughts on “What’s Better – Free Weights or Machines?

    1. Hey Emi,

      A spotter is just somebody who can make sure you don't drop the weight on yourself.


    2. Hey Emi,

      A spotter is just somebody who can make sure you don't drop the weight on yourself.


    3. Interesting article, thanks for writing. I’ve also found this article on Free Weights Vs Machines which is good for further reading on the subject. It goes into more detail on gravitational pull concerning free weights etc.

    4. Out of sheer curiosity: what do you make of cable machines? (ie. the ones with simply a cable and pulley with a weightstack attached to one end and a handle on the other)

    5.  I’m sure you’ve address this somewhere before – but what about when recovering from injury/as part of physical therapy? My physical therapist (who I admit I really like and respect) pulled me off machines EXCEPT for seated leg press – and this is going on 4 years since my last knee surgery, 2 since my last major injury. I admit – I’ve done lying leg press with barbells since, just to “see,” but it HURTS my right knee something fierce. (Not hurts like muscle pain – hurts like the joint is going to fall the heck out again.) Thoughts on that? I don’t think it’s the weight – in fact, I can single-leg press that amount with the other leg. It seems like an angle issue? This is probably the only thing I’m still struggling to do – even stairs are mostly fine now, with weights.

    6. Steve, what if your gym (Planet Witless) has NO Barbells for Deadlift/Squats (Smith Machines)…I’d like to get the benefit of using the stabilizer muscles, and I’m concerned that I wont get as complete a workout…

    7. Definitely. Ditch that gym. If that’s not an option, you can employ the dumbbell versions of squats and dead lifts.

    8. I realize this is an ancient article, but since is a big part of one of the Rules of the Rebellion, and your audience contains a lot of weight-training newbies, you might make this clearer. Two of my friends, brand new to fitness, just joined up on NF yesterday. They are both coping with various physical disabilities which have kept them in very sedentary lives, and both have a lot of emotional resistance to “gym stuff”, especially strength training.

      We recently got an abandoned bowflex for $50 on Craig’s List, and they both love it. It is simple, quiet, and unintimidating. But last night, when they told me about joining Nerd Fitness, they mentioned the “No Weight Machines” thing, saying, “Well, I know they are against weight machines, but it is what we have, and it is what we can do.”

      There are a variety of reasons why free weights or body-weight based compound exercises would be a problem for them, but my point is, it is likely neither of them have ever seen one of the types of weight machines you are talking about. They certainly would have no reason to think that the cable-type machines were in an entirely different category than the ones that strictly control range of movement. They just see “No Weight Machines”.

      I’m definitely going to show them this comment though, because they didn’t seem at all convinced when I tried to explain why the bowflex was nearly as good as free weights.

    9. Me and my boyfriend joined Planet Fitness and they have barbels… is it different for each location? We’re in Canada, in Toronto Ontario. They seem to get alot of flak, but it seems they have things where we go that some people say they don’t have where they are…. so maybe it is different for different locations? I think I have lost some weight already and both free weights and the machines will help my arm which is very weak after being in a cast a couple of years ago… never realized how weak until started going there. That arm hurts alot though my good arm is fine with the exercise, the weak arm hurts like a mother… We love the machines, and I am planning on using both them and the free weights to strengthen my arm, it hurts like hell and still clicks in the joint when I do things (it was the elbow that got broken). Haven’t found any advice on physiotherapy exercises unfortunately so I will have to guess. I have seen people with well defined muscles there so they must be getting something useful out of it. We are both having fun and it is cheap and AIR CONDITIONED which is why we joined, to exercise during the summer… there are more and more heat waves these days, and it is also 24 hours which is good for our schedule… it doesn’t have to be “the ultimate gym”, it suits our needs. I also greatly enjoy the rowing machine, as I went to a family cottage when I was young and we often went on a lake to fish, in a rowboat… I row on the machine and picture the lake in my mind, it gives me exercise and relaxes my mind, bringing back good memories. It’s not the same as rowing in a boat, but good enough. I don’t have access to a row boat anymore anyways, so it suits. Over time I will increase the weight on the row machine (and others as well as using the free weights), right now I am going from sedentary to exercising so I’m on low weight…. I really do enjoy going there, though yeah bringing your own music and zoning out is a good idea… and DOES help with pain.

    10. I was thinking about your comment on how machines don’t work stabilizer muscles. In certain instances I would agree when looking at traditional weight machines in a a gym. However Bowflex and bio force gyms do challenge stabilizer muscles and have consistent resistance throughout a full range of motion.

      I am. It convinced that either is superior, and as such I use both.

    11. Lol, there’s going to be nothing natural about me lifting weights to start with anyways. I hate working out, but it helps depression (says my boyfriend). Afterall, I don’t want to look like my mom at 35, now do I?s

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