Free Weights vs. Machines - Which is Better?

May 15, 2023


Before I give you a straight answer, we need to first establish what  “free weights” are and what “machines” are.


What are "free weights?"

Free weights are things like dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells.  They aren’t attached to anything and your body has to 100% control the object.  This will be your natural movement.

You use free weights when doing things like a squat, deadlift, hip thrust, shoulder press, and row.


What are "machines?"

Machines guide the path that you are pushing or pulling the weight.  Yes, YOU are still pushing or pulling, but the direction is decided for you.  This is not as natural of a movement, but it can still have a functional place!


For the sake of this article, I want to leave cables out of the discussion. Technically, a cable is a type of machine.  But they operate so differently from other machines, it’s best we put them out of this.


Both machines and free weights can have a place in a functional program.  What you should be using depends on your level, height, goal, and which movement you are performing.  Let’s address these one by one.



1 - Level of Fitness

If you are beginner to resistance training or haven’t done so for a very long time, machines may be a good idea to incorporate for the first 3-4 weeks of getting back into the gym.  This will allow your body to remember how to perform those movements.  It can teach your body how to do the movements with a relatively functional pattern of movement, the muscles that you need to engage, and which direction to move.  If you do this, your body will not see the free weights as as much of a shock to the system because it’s already had a little introduction with the machines.


Machines CAN be like learning addition + subtraction before multiplication and division.


It CAN be like laying a foundation.


But there is an exception…


2 - Height

Machines have a limitation…a BIG one.  They are created for a certain body size.  And if you don’t fit this body size, you will not be able to perform the movement properly within the machine.


For example, if you want to do a seated chest press (seated while pressing the weight in front) but are too short for the machine, you will be pushing slightly upward instead of directly in front.  Then when you switch to doing chest press with free weights, it still won’t feel right and your body will have to relearn the direction to push.


You’d think this would be an exception or not that common, but it’s actually very common.  Many women cannot use some machines properly even when adjusted to the smallest setting.



3 - Goal

There are certain isolation movements you can do with dumbbells, but sometimes isolation movements are much more effective with machines.


For example, bicep curls are very effective with free weights, but they can potentially be even more effective with a machine.


Imagine this:  You are doing bicep curls with dumbbells (free weights).  You are either seated or standing.  You have a dumbbell in each hand.  You bend at your elbow and pull the weight towards your body.  While yes, you are isolating the bicep, your CNS is still having think about holding the elbow in place, stabilizing the body, and not swinging the arms.  But now imagine you are seated with your forearms on a bench in front of you.  You don’t have to think about stabilizing your body.  You don’t have to think about keeping your elbows in place.  Everything is essentially glued in place and your CNS won’t be distracted by it.  You can give your full attention to the bicep, therefore, 100% isolating it.

This is an extreme example, but makes a good point.  Both free weights and machines can be functional, it just depends on what function you are wanting to achieve.  What is your goal?



4 - Type of Movement

Some movements are very difficult/impossible with free weights.


Example: You want to do a lying hamstring curl with free weights (a dumbbell.)  You lie down face down on a bench and a partner assist you to place a dumbbell between your feet so you can pull it towards your legs.


This is totally acceptable, but maybe not optimal!  Because the weight is not anchored to a point, the resistance is going to vary throughout the range of motion.  Some phases of the movement will feel very hard and other parts will not feel hard at all.


However, using a machine ensures that the pull of the weight is exactly the same throughout the full range of motion.  This means you will gain the same amount of strength throughout the full range of motion.


And as you get stronger, this will become nearly impossible because your feet will not be able to hold so heavy of a dumbbell.  At some point, the free weight can actually limit your strength gains or dramatically slow it down.



When should you use machines?

  • You are brand new to lifting or haven’t done so in a very long time.
  • Your body fits the machine size.
  • You are unfamiliar with the new movement patterns.
  • You want to do isolation work.
  • When an exercise losing effectiveness with a free weight.

Feel free to still incorporate free weights here and there while using machines!  It doesn’t need to be 100% one or the other.


When should you use free weights?

  • You are comfortable with the movements.
  • You want to allow your body to do it’s natural movement.
  • You want to work on stabilization and balance.  This is great for injury prevention.
  • The isolation work is still effective and/or it is your preferred method.
  • When machines don’t fit your body size.


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