Free Weights vs. Weight Machines: Which is More Effective?

When you walk into any health club or gym, you usually have two choices for the kind of weight training routine you can do: free weights or weight machines.

So which is best? When do you grab free weights like dumbbells, barbells and medicine balls, and when do you move to the weight machines, such as the chest press, pull-down or leg press? Below, you’ll learn the advantages of both free weights and weight machines.

Advantages to free weights:

  • You get stronger. Research has shown that free weights help you to get stronger much faster than weight machines.
  • You get more athletic. Free weights also build more balance and coordination than weight machines.
  • You’re more efficient with time. Most free weight exercises, such as dead lifts or squat-to-overhead-press recruit more muscle groups than weight machines, so you work more muscle and burn more calories in less time.
  • You can move through a greater range-of-motion. Many weight machines simply don’t “feel right” to your body, no matter how you adjust the seat or handles. With free weights, you have complete freedom of rotation so that something like an overhead shoulder press can feel much more natural and comfortable with free weights compared to weight machines.

Advantages to weight machines:

  • Less injury risk. Many free weights exercises require instruction and training to master proper form. In contrast, the joints and levers of weight machines can guide you through the proper range of motion.
  • Better for beginners. Not only are weight machines often located in an area far removed from the grunting of the big sweaty dumbbell lifters, but they’re also often staffed by personal trainers who can help you with an exercise, or have pictures to show you how to properly use the machine.
  • Good for isolating muscles. If you’re injured and you can’t use certain muscles, or you want to ensure that you’re just working one single muscle group, such as your chest, machines can be very effective for isolating just one area.
  • Allow easy weight changes. Free weights can require lots of stacking plates on barbells and taking dumbbells off shelves. But if you want to quickly change the weight you’re using, weight machines usually have a weight stack that makes things far more simple — as simple as merely adjusting a pin.

Your exercise program can certainly include both free weights and machines. Often, I’ll do a circuit on the weight machines at my gym, but include just a few free weights exercises to mix things up, burn more calories or replace certain machines that I don’t feel comfortable on.

Regardless of which weight training mode that you choose, both options will allow you to sculpt your body, burn calories and get stronger.