Whether you make a beeline for the dumbbells when you get to the gym or you bounce around from machine to machine, there’s one thing we know: Strength training has numerous benefits, leading to stronger bones and muscles, better balance, and maintenance of a healthy weight.
But if you ever wonder where you should be spending your time during a sweat session — with free weights or on weight machines — look no further.
We’re breaking down the pros and cons of each below.
Both free weights and machines are beneficial.
It all comes down to — as with many fitness-related “this or that” questions — your fitness level and goals.
In general, weight machines are a great tool for beginners, as they teach proper form and reduce the risk of injury.
Free weights, on the other hand, allow you to work more muscles and promote functional fitness.
Plus, if home workouts are your jam right now, free weights are more accessible and versatile than machines.
Yes, both free weights and machines will work many of the same muscles.
But when you’re comparing apples to apples, free weights work more muscles than machines do.
Think about this: When you perform a dumbbell shoulder press, not only are your shoulders engaged, but so are your core, traps, and triceps, as your whole upper body works to stabilize you.
In a shoulder press machine, a fixed range of motion guides the weight up and down, eliminating the need for that extra stabilization on your end. Here, the majority of the work falls to your shoulders.
For the average person, free weights offer many of the same benefits as machines, plus some.
While you can typically lift more weight in the same exercise on a machine due to their fixed nature, free weights give you more bang for your buck in terms of muscles worked.
You can get a full body workout in less time with free weights, and you’ll engage many of those smaller stabilizer muscles you may not even know existed.
Here’s a breakdown of how to approach each type.
To use a machine, adjust the sizing and weight, then hop on.
Many machines will have instructions on the frame, giving you a step-by-step idea of how it works and the muscles you’ll be targeting.
If those aren’t there and you’re unsure, ask someone who works at the gym for more help.
You can complete a full-body circuit, choosing a handful of upper and lower body machines, or focus on one to two muscle groups with your machine picks.
When it comes to free weights, you’ll use dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells to perform the exercise.
Depending on which exercise you’re doing, you’ll need one or two dumbbells or kettlebells, but only one barbell will suffice.
Make sure you’re comfortable with the form that’s required, and go lighter to start to avoid injury.
As discussed earlier, machines can be especially beneficial if you’re new to weightlifting or want to target a specific muscle group.
As a beginner, learning proper form is crucial, not only to prevent injury but to maximize the benefits from each exercise you perform.
Starting on machines will allow you to get a sense of how the movement should feel and which muscles are the focus.
Similarly, even if you mostly stick to free weights, using machines to hit certain muscle groups is also an effective tactic.
Say you just completed a set of barbell deadlifts — a hamstring-focused exercise — and you want to superset that with a quad-focused exercise.
Instead of squatting, you could jump on the leg extension machine to specifically work the quads without fatiguing other leg muscles.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced exerciser, make the foundation of your routine based in free weights and supplement with machines.
There’s a learning curve to both machines and free weights. Watch out for these things as you get comfortable with either type of equipment.
Adjust the size to fit you. This means areas like the seat height, grip width, and so on will most likely need to be modified when you get on.
If it feels unnatural, don’t do it. Although machines are meant to work for the masses, they aren’t universal. Factors like your height, weight, body structure, and more can affect how you use a machine. If you just can’t get a movement to feel comfortable, don’t push it.
Pay attention to your form. Each exercise has its own set of nuances regarding head placement, lower back position, stance, and so on. Do your research before beginning, so you get the most out of each exercise and prevent injury.
Don’t go too fast. Slow and controlled is the name of the game for almost every free weight exercise. Don’t rely on momentum. Instead, focus on muscle-mind connection.
When in doubt, go lighter. Using a machine provides you some backup insurance if the weight is too heavy, but with free weights you’re in total control. Opt for lighter weights until you feel solid in an exercise.
Both free weights and machines have their place in your strength training routine. By taking your personal goals and fitness level into account, you can decide which will work best for you and when.
Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, WI, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife and more.