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Free weights or machines?

As a fitness trainer, I’ve been asked this question by many clients and health club members. I find the consensus of gym goers is that ‘machines are easy to use, but if you want to get results from your workouts, you need to use free weights.' This is correct, but it doesn’t account for other aspects of these two types of training. Weight stacks and dumbbells create resistance for our muscles under the effect of gravity. The source of force is the same for both machine and free weights. So, what are the differences between them? Is one better than the other? Let’s compare them based on various factors: Safety: Exercising with machines is a safer option than free weights. There will be less risk of dropping dumbbells on your toes or getting trapped under the bar when chest pressing or squatting. That being said, I’ve witnessed rare cases of injuries, such as the time when a member put his fingers under the weight stack on a leg extension machine. Ouch! Everyone should be safety-conscious, regardless of the type of training but in general, working out with machines has less risk than free weights.

Ease of use: Knowing the right form and technique when exercising is crucial. It’s made somewhat more comfortable with machines, especially for beginners because many machines come with pictures and brief instructions on how to use them.

The flexibility of design: Many weight training movements can’t be performed by using free weights, so there are machines designed specifically for those moves. Some examples are Hip Abduction and Hip Adduction machines.

Core training: This is one of the most significant advantages of free weights compared to machines. Machines are designed to isolate a specific group of muscles, where working out with free weights requires you to isolate the muscles by yourself. To do this, you need to activate your core muscles and use them to stabilize the target muscle group. For instance, if you compare leg extension machine and squat, there will be no core stability involved in the former while for the latter, many joints and muscle groups are engaged to provide stability needed to perform the exercise. In other words, exercising with free weights recruits more muscle groups than machines.

Each option of free weights and machine training has its advantages and disadvantages. Combined, they can help you to gain the best results. However, to increase strength, it’s highly recommended for beginners to use machines, mainly when the free weight option includes a complicated movement (i.e., leg press machine vs. dead lift). Also, beginners should perform easy free weight exercises with light weights to prepare for more advanced movements. While advanced individuals can benefit from a machine workouts, they should include more free weight exercises than machines for a more complete and challenging workout. So what type of workout do you prefer? Free weights or machines and why?

Hooman Jamshidi Founder @Dur1 Health Registered massage therapist, Certified personal trainer E: C: 416.726.4652

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