Free Weights vs Machines

Free Weights vs Machines,
What’s Better?

Free Weights vs. Machines - members strength training

Free weights or machines?

This debate has existed in the fitness industry since the first strength training machines were invented in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “____ is better.”

Machines and free weights both have benefits and drawbacks. Read below to learn which option is best for you.

Strength Training Basics

Strength training was created over 2,000 years ago with the Ancient Greeks (Feld, 2020). They would build strength and muscle by lifting rocks, bags of sand, and the original version of a medicine ball.

Thankfully, strength training equipment has evolved. In the 1860s, barbells and dumbbells were created (Soleyn, n.d.). They were followed by the creation of the kettlebells and resistance bands in the late 1800s, cable machines in the 1950s, and the first line of strength training machines in the 1970s (Feld, 2020).

While there’s consensus in the fitness and medical fields that strength training is good for overall health, there is much debate about what type of strength training equipment is most effective for strength gains or increasing muscle size.

The debate is usually simplified into two categories: free weights and machines.

Free weights are objects that are “free” of any attachment. You can move them anywhere. The most common free weights used are dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, and kettlebells.

Machines have a fixed path of motion and are often specialized for a specific movement. Most have weight stacks where the weight is selected by inserting a pin or flipping a switch.

Strength training with either type of equipment is effective for building strength, muscle, bone density, and for enhancing health. With that said, free weights and machines contrast in their strengths (no pun intended) and weaknesses.

Female strength training on a machine and male strength training with free weights

Free Weights vs Machines

Versatility

If you are looking to use one piece of equipment for as many exercises as possible, free weights are the best option.

A barbell (with a collection of weight plates), for example, can be used for a bench press, back squat, deadlift, curls, a shoulder press, and bent-over row. This one piece of equipment can be used to target all major muscle groups.

Dumbbells are also versatile, although a range of dumbbells are needed to account for the differing strength levels necessary for different exercises and to provide options for progressing resistance.

Machines are generally limited in their versatility. An example of this is the leg press. A leg press is generally only useful for two exercises: a leg press or calf raise.

Safety

Machines hold the advantage of providing a safer strength training workout. Machines offer more stability with most being seated and isolating movement in the targeted muscle groups.

There’s also no risk of dropping the weight on oneself. With a barbell bench press or a dumbbell shoulder press, a person could easily drop the weight onto their chest, head, or feet if losing control.

On a machine, dropping the weight translates to the weight plates simply dropping onto the weight stack… aka slamming the weights. While this causes a loud noise and should still be avoided for proper maintenance and courtesy, no weight actually lands on the lifter.

Free weights, in some cases, also place more force and compression on joints (Escamilla et al., 2001).

A research team in Australia tracked gym injuries over a 14-year period (Gray & Finch, 2015). Free-weight training was responsible for most of the cases, with 55% of the 3,000-plus injuries taking place during free-weight exercises. (Essentially all of the other injuries took place during non-strength training activities: group aerobics classes, boxing, treadmill running, and jumping exercises).

Muscle Growth & Strength

Traditionally, free weights are the go-to tool to maximize strength and muscle growth. But are they proven to be the most effective equipment for reaching these goals? The research isn’t clear.

One study found that the barbell bench press and its machine equivalent, the chest press, were equally effective in activating the muscle fibers in the chest, shoulders, and triceps (McCaw & Friday, 1994).

However, a study comparing a barbell squat with a leg press (on a leg press machine) showed that the squat was more effective for activating muscle fibers in the quadriceps and hamstrings (Escamilla et al., 2001), indicating that the squats might be more effective for producing muscle growth over time.

A recent study dove further into the question of which is best for muscle growth and strength (Schwanbeck et al., 2020). Men and women trained 2-3 times per week with either the free weight or machine version of the same basic movements.

At the end, the researchers measured both groups’ progress. Which type of equipment led to better “gains?” Neither. The free weight and machine groups had similar increases in both strength and muscle size.

Leg extension machine

So What’s Better, Free Weights or Machines?

Strength training with machines or free weights will enhance your health, bone density, strength, and muscle size. Your life will benefit from either approach.

If you seek versatility in being able to do the most with the least amount of equipment, if your space is limited, or if you want equipment that’s easier to transport, free weights are the best option.

On the other hand, machines are significantly safer. Free-weight exercises are responsible for the majority of injuries in gyms. Machines eliminate the possibility of injuries as a result of you or others dropping the weight.

Finally, when the workload is the same, machines and free weights produce similar levels of strength and muscle development.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S., Zheng, N., Lander, J.E., Barrentine, S.W., Andrews, J.R., … Moorman, C.T. (2001). Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(9), 1552-1566.
  • Feld, J. (2020). The constant evolution of fitness equipment. IHRSA. Retrieved from https://www.ihrsa.org/improve-your-club/the-constant-evolution-of-fitness-equipment/
  • Gray, S.E. & Finch, C.F. (2015). The causes of injuries sustained at fitness facilities presenting to Victorian emergency departments – identifying the main culprits. Injury Epidemiology, 2(1), 6.
  • McCaw, S.T. & Friday, J.J. (1994). A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight and machine bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(4), 259-264.
  • Schwanbeck, S.R., Cornish, S.M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P.D. (2020). Effects of training with free weights versus machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol levels. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(7), 1851-1859.
  • Soleyn, N. (n.d.). Strength performers and early barbells. Barbell Logic. Retrieved from https://barbell-logic.com/early-barbell/

Machines vs Free Weights for Hypertrophy

Machines vs Free Weights for Hypertrophy

Mission Monday Episode 11

If you want to build your muscles, you have to use free weights…Right?

This is a common belief in strength training. Many of us have read fitness magazines and looked at bodybuilding websites. Most of the suggested exercises are free weights.

This begs the question: “Should we train with free weights to maximize our ‘gains?’”

Free Weights or Machines?

A study, published in 2020 by a team of Canadian researchers, attempted to answer this question. The study examined whether free weights or machines would lead to more muscle growth:

  • For two months, men and women completed 2-3 workouts per week
  • One half trained with machines
  • The other half used free weights
  • The workouts featured the same basic movements and weight loads
  • At the end, the researchers used ultrasounds to measure muscle changes in the biceps and quadriceps

Which method was superior? Neither.

The free weight and machine groups both gained muscle with NO difference in how much muscle was gained. Both groups also increased their strength to the same degree.

Are you surprised? If you were, you weren’t alone.

The researchers also acknowledged that they expected free weights to be superior for muscle growth. However, they did make the case for why machines are advantageous.

Advantages of Machines

The researchers mentioned that machines have the advantage of providing a variable resistance level. This means the amount of resistance adjusts to the natural strength curve.

Machines make the weight lighter in the part of an exercise when we’re weakest and
machines make the resistance heavier in the part of the movement when we’re strongest.

As a result, muscles are thoroughly challenged during each repetition.

What’s another advantage of machines? They are SAFE!

The vast majority of strength training injuries take place when using free weights.

In summary, machines are just as effective as free weights for increasing muscle size.
They’re also safe and provide an efficient workout.

As always, you can find references to the studies that we’ve mentioned below.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Gray, S.E. & Finch, C.F. (2015). The causes of injuries sustained at fitness facilities presenting to Victorian emergency departments – identifying the main culprits. Injury Epidemiology, 2(1), 6.
  • Schwanbeck, S.R., Cornish, S.M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P.D. (2020). Effects of training with free weights versus machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol levels. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(7), 1851-1859.

Machines vs Free Weights for Hypertrophy

Mission Monday Episode 11

If you want to build your muscles, you have to use free weights…Right?

This is a common belief in strength training. Many of us have read fitness magazines and looked at bodybuilding websites. Most of the suggested exercises are free weights.

This begs the question: “Should we train with free weights to maximize our ‘gains?’”

Free Weights or Machines?

A study, published in 2020 by a team of Canadian researchers, attempted to answer this question. The study examined whether free weights or machines would lead to more muscle growth:

  • For two months, men and women completed 2-3 workouts per week
  • One half trained with machines
  • The other half used free weights
  • The workouts featured the same basic movements and weight loads
  • At the end, the researchers used ultrasounds to measure muscle changes in the biceps and quadriceps

Which method was superior? Neither.

The free weight and machine groups both gained muscle with NO difference in how much muscle was gained. Both groups also increased their strength to the same degree.

Are you surprised? If you were, you weren’t alone.

The researchers also acknowledged that they expected free weights to be superior for muscle growth. However, they did make the case for why machines are advantageous.

Advantages of Machines

The researchers mentioned that machines have the advantage of providing a variable resistance level. This means the amount of resistance adjusts to the natural strength curve.

Machines make the weight lighter in the part of an exercise when we’re weakest and
machines make the resistance heavier in the part of the movement when we’re strongest.

As a result, muscles are thoroughly challenged during each repetition.

What’s another advantage of machines? They are SAFE!

The vast majority of strength training injuries take place when using free weights.

In summary, machines are just as effective as free weights for increasing muscle size
They’re also safe and provide an efficient workout.

As always, you can find references to the studies that we’ve mentioned below.

If you would like to learn more about our method of strength training, read about our methodology. If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and start with a FREE Introductory Session.

  • Gray, S.E. & Finch, C.F. (2015). The causes of injuries sustained at fitness facilities presenting to Victorian emergency departments – identifying the main culprits. Injury Epidemiology, 2(1), 6.
  • Schwanbeck, S.R., Cornish, S.M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P.D. (2020). Effects of training with free weights versus machines on muscle mass, strength, free testosterone, and free cortisol levels. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(7), 1851-1859.

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