As personal trainers, clients often ask us about free weights vs machines – which is better? Should they be using selectorized resistance machines or dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells? There are a number of factors that play into the best approach, like exercise experience, training goals, and equipment availability.
In this article – we review free weights vs machines studies conducted by sports and exercise scientists to understand which (if either) is better.
What’s the Difference Between Free Weights and Machines?
Let’s start by looking at the main differences… There are many distinctions between strength machines and free weights but we can categorise them into the following areas:
- Support for less experienced exercisers
- Potential for incorrect use or injury
- Variety of possible exercises
- Progression potential
Support for Less Experienced Exercisers
Strength machines facilitate a guided exercise motion as the body can only move in one direction. This can be helpful for beginners and less experienced users. If they aren’t sure exactly how to perform an exercise then the machine guides them on the correct movement. Most machines also have instructional placards attached that demonstrate the ideal form.
Free weights don’t provide this level of support for inexperienced exercisers. They are standalone accessories that simply provide extra resistance to movements. They rely on people knowing how to use them in order to be effective. For some, this can be a barrier but with so many YouTube videos and workout guides on the internet, lack of knowledge is no longer the barrier that it used to be.
Potential for Incorrect Use or Injury
Free weights don’t support a guided movement – the body can move in almost any direction when using them. The advantage of this is that it trains all of the smaller supporting muscles because they’re working hard to stabilise the main muscle group. The downside is that this can open up the potential for injury if they are used incorrectly.
However, there’s a lower risk of incorrect use or injury when using selectorised machines. They’re almost impossible to misuse and can actually help teach people the correct movement techniques.
Variety of Possible Exercises
Free weights offer an almost endless variety of exercises. The category itself includes dumbbells, barbells, plate weights, and kettlebells, along with an ever-increasing list of new training products. Each of these supports a huge range of different movement so you’ll never run out of new exercise ideas.
There is also a large variety of strength machines available ut to a lesser extent than free weights. Most fitness equipment companies have 10-25 strength machines in a range. Machines usually focus on large muscle groups and a specific pushing or pulling movement only.
The variety of possible exercises also leads to greater progression potential. There’s a lot more scope to increase the difficulty of a free weight exercise than a machine one. You can use different techniques, loads, or combinations to make the exercise more challenging.
With machines, there’s a limit to how much you or your client can progress. They have a fixed weight stack so once the heaviest option is achieved, it’s not easy to increase the difficulty. This shouldn’t be an issue for beginners but can become a barrier for advanced users.
Another key difference in the debate of free weights vs machines is accessibility. Strength machines are usually found in gyms or parks as few people can afford to buy their own. However, free weights are much cheaper which makes them more accessible for the majority.
If you’re a personal trainer in a gym, then you’ll likely have access to both machines and free weights. But if you run your own studio or mobile PT company, then machines are probably out of the question. In this case, free weights are a cheaper and more practical option.
So, after all of that, are free weights or machines better? As you can see it depends on a number of different factors so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer…
- If you’re training newbies, then it’s probably best to start them off on selectorized resistance machines. This allows them to learn the correct technique and build up strength.
- For more experienced clients or athletes, free weights will provide a more challenging workout. The versatile exercise options also mean they’re less likely to become bored in the long-term.
Free Weights Vs Machines Studies
There are a number of studies that have compared selectorized machines with free weights. Some have looked at specific exercise movement whereas others have looked at the effects of overall usage. Here is a comprehensive list of free weights vs machines scholarly articles on the topic…
- Comparison Of Muscle Force Production Using The Smith Machine And Free Weights For Bench Press And Squat Exercises (Cotterman et al., 2005).
- Machines Versus Free Weights (Santana, 2001).
- Considerations in Gaining A Strength-Power Training Effect (Machines Vs Free Weights) (Stone, 1982).
- Kinetic Comparison of Free Weight and Machine Power Cleans (Murry et al., 2008).
- The Effects of Training with Free Weights or Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Testosterone and Cortisol Levels (Schwanbeck, 2008).
- A Comparison of Muscle Activity Between A Free Weight and Machine Bench Press (McCaw & Friday, 1994).
So, what do these studies show? Are free weights better than machines? Or does it depend on what your fitness goal is? Here’s a summary of what these free weights vs machines studies found…
- Cotterman – The squat 1RM was greater for the Smith Machine than the free weights, however, the bench 1RM was greater for free weights than the Smith Machine.
- Santana – For optimum performance enhancement, use an integrated approach to training using all available tools appropriately.
- Stone – Free weights have numerous advantages over machines.
- Murry – Maximum strength (1RM) and average power were significantly greater for the free weight condition, whereas peak velocity and average velocity were greater for the machine condition.
- Schwanbeck – training with free weights or machines result in similar increases in muscle mass and strength, and testosterone to cortisol ratio.
- McCaw – results suggest greater muscle activity during the free weight bench press compared with selectorized.
Is It Better To Use Machines Or Free Weights?
Ultimately, this depends on the fitness goal, the current level of strength, and how good the user’s technique is. According to the current research, free weights have the edge over machines. But for beginners and less experienced exercisers, selectorized equipment is a good way to get started. So, in your opinion what’s better, free weights or machines?