Free Weights vs Machines: My thoughts

free weights vs machines

If you go into any gym or workout locale you will most definitely see both machines and a section of free weights that you can use for your training. Some people only use the free weights and some people only use the machines. Some people use a combination of the two to get their workout done. I don’t consider any of these approaches wrong; this post simply states my thoughts around the question of free weights vs machines.

If you want to build some muscle and get stronger, some sort of resistance training is necessary. If you’re a beginner (or if you want to switch up your workout routine) you might be uncertain if you should head for the machines or the free weights.

Hopefully, this post will straight some of those question marks out, and leave you with some more guidance when it comes to your choice of equipment.

The debate

The debate whether free weights or machines are better than the other has been around for decades and depending on who you ask you will be told a different answer. The question is more complex than a binary “yes/no” situation.

I will not open up Pandora’s Box by saying that one is better than the other, you should come to that conclusion by yourself depending on your needs and goals. However, I will give you some of my thoughts and opinions on the matter.

I feel the need to explain a little bit what the two different choices are, even though it might seem obvious by their names.

Free weights

Free weights include dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls, a rock or a log of wood. Pretty much anything that you can pick up and hold is considered to be a free weight.

Gravity will pull the weight down towards the ground and this is what your body will be fighting against when you do your exercises.

Free weights are also able to move in every direction in the three-dimensional space.


In this post, I will define machines as equipment that you use by pulling or pushing a lever through a pre-set range of motion. This can be a leg extension machine or a chest press.

Machines will only move in two dimensions since the range of motion is set.

You will work against a load of weights that are pulled from a stack. You choose by yourself how many weights you want to work with.

What about cable machines?

I have excluded cable machines from this post since they have characteristics of both free weights and machines. Yes, it is a machine but you don’t move the weight in a pre-set range of motion making the cable machine have a lot in common with free weights.

Pros and cons with free weights and machines

When working with free weights you engage small tiny muscle that you probably didn’t even know that you had. A classic barbell squat for instance. Here you engage your quads, but to keep your legs in place you also work your inner and outer thigh muscles. Your butt, hamstrings and core will help you keep steady during the movement. If you squat with dumbbells you can even engage your arms in the exercise.

Big functional movements, such as already mentioned squats, but also deadlifts and pull-ups, you can find yourself doing in everyday life. If you are good and heavy squats and deadlifts you will be a popular person to call when it comes to moving heavy furniture for example.

If you were to engage all of these muscles in machines you had to go through several machines in order work out the same muscles, hence making the free weights more time effective.

On the other hand, say that you really want to give your quads a beat down but you have already done 4 sets of squats and your stabilizing muscles in the hips are fried. Then the leg extension machine comes in handy since it is only targeting your quads and lets the supporting muscles rest.

A benefit that speaks to the machine’s favour is that they are easy to learn. Good form when lifting free weights is essential to prevent injury. If you were to deadlift heavy weights with bad form that’s a back injury waiting to happen.

Machines usually have instructions on the side that tells you how the machine is supposed to be used. This makes it easy for you to combine enough machines to complete a full body workout. This might be ideal if you don’t have a gym buddy that can spot you during exercises or if you want to build up some strength before hitting the free weights.

Free weights vs machines: Conclusion

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, there is no right or wrong here. How you choose to exercise and with what equipment is up to you and should be based on your needs and your goals. If I were to give you some advice though, I would say that you should go for the free weights but don’t exclude the machines.

Ask someone (if you don’t already know) how to do a certain exercise with free weights. When you feel that your muscles are getting fatigued and you can’t keep up the form anymore, you can go on to a machine that targets the main muscle of the exercise that you did and do one more set until you are really fatigued.

That is how I do it, and it works out great for me. By doing that I get the benefits of working out with free weights, mainly getting the supporting muscles trained as well, but I prevent injury by only making as much as I can with proper form. I don’t have to rely on a gym buddy to be there spotting me either, making me more flexible when it comes to what times I can go down to the gym.

What are your thoughts and do you use machines or free weights? Let me know, and as always, be nice and take care.

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