Free weights vs Machine weights
What’s the difference? Which one is more effective? In this post I’m going to outline the pros and cons of each one and where they have their place.
What are free weights?
As the name implies free weights are weights that are not fixed. This includes barbells, dumbells, weight plates, kettlebells etc. These are the weights you see Arnold throwing around in Pumping Iron.
What are machine weights?
Machine weights are the opposite to free weights in that they are attached and fixed to various levers, pulleys and fulcrums that means the weight can only move in one direction or plane of motion (i.e. up and down or side to side but not both).
5 advantages of free weights over machines
1. Natural range of motion- because the weight is not fixed you can move it in any direction. Everyone has slightly different leverages and proportions; by using free weights you can control the weight as you like and move it in the most natural way for you. This is better for your joints.
For example if you watch someone bench press with a free bar from the side you will notice that the bar does not move straight up and down; it moves in a slight arc from the chest towards the head as the person pushes.
Machines are fixed to only move along one path. This restriction from your natural path can cause extra stress on your joints which can cause injury over time.
A particularly bad culprit for this is the Smith Machine, like the one below. People seem to love this machine simply because you can move more weight on it than on a free bar, so they can kid themselves they are stronger than they are.
However notice how the metal rails holding the bar mean it has to move straight up and down? This is not natural and over time this will put a lot of stress on the shoulder joint if you use it to bench press.
I’ve even seen people squat in this machine which is possibly even worse; leaning into the bar and putting all the stress through their knees. But who needs healthy ligaments anyway?
2.Develops stability and balance
A big plus point for free weights is that you have to balance the weight as you press it or lift it. Not only does this help build co-ordination, but you also strengthen the stabilising muscles alongside the primary muscle you are targeting.
This is why the optimum way to exercise in terms of overall functional development is to stand up and use free weights; standing ensures you are engaging your core and your whole body is worked when you are performing exercises such as lifting weight overhead.
3. Prevents and fixes muscle imbalances
I’m talking more about using dumbells here, rather than barbells, but having to balance and push the weight independently with each hand or leg means that you can ensure they are both working as hard as each other.
With a barbell or machine it is quite easy for your dominant hand (normally your writing hand) to take more of the load and so you can end up with uneven development or even posture problems.
This can be exacerbated further by using machines because they even take the balance element out of it, meaning you can push even harder with your dominant side.
4. It is more functional
When I say functional I mean how useful it is and representative of physical situations outside of the gym. When it comes to free weights the most functional training is probably what is known as ‘strongman’; this involves carrying barrels, pulling heavy objects and flipping tyres for example. All these activities take place on various planes of motion.
Lifting bars and dumbbells in the gym is not as functional as this, because they make it easier to lift the weight (for example by having plates and a thin bar to hold rather than being a large awkward rock).
However without access to strongman equipment it is still far better than machines because of the aforementioned balance aspect of squatting and deadlifting a free bar for example.
5. It is cheaper and more simple to do
The great thing about free weights is that if you can’t afford to join a gym/can’t find a suitable one near you you can just buy a bar, some plates and a rack and you can have a very simple but effective home workout.
A second-hand bar and some plates can be a tenth of the cost of one machine, and you can literally workout every muscle in your body.
3 advantages of machines over free weights
a) Doesn’t take so long to learn how to use them
The supportive aspect of a machine means they can be a good way to get introduced into lifting weights (although you should still start learning the fundamental free-weight lifts right away).
If you have poor flexibility and are relatively weak you can use the fact that the machine balances the weight to help you develop a bit of strength to help you when performing free weights.
b) Are ideal for rehab after injury
Along the same lines if you are just trying to build up very basic strength then using a machine can help you slowly work your way back to full strength and onto the free weights.
c) You can focus more on developing a target muscle
This is for advanced or intermediate trainees who have built up a solid base of strength and muscle. Once you have been training for a while you will notice that you are stronger in some areas than others, and you might want to target a specific area to make it stronger to help with your compound movements.
For example if you need to work on hamstring strength for your deadlifts you can use the lying hamstring curl machine to directly hit that muscle.
Alternatively if you are into bodybuilding and looking for muscle size machines can be a very effective way of isolating a muscle to make sure it is doing the work- for instance doing bicep curls on a machine you can forget about having to balance any weight and so put all the stress on your bicep.
I’ve got to be honest, I was looking to try and put down 5 advantages of machine weights over free weights but couldn’t think of the last two!
It is pretty obvious that using free weights has more advantages than using machine weights, and if I had to choose between only using one type, it is free weights every time for the reasons above.
However I do think machines have their place in your training arsenal; they are another tool to help you reach your goals.
The best approach is to concentrate on practicing and developing your free weights from the start, especially when a beginner, to get that solid base of balance, strength and muscle. As I mentioned machines should be used to bring up weak points; as a beginner you have no idea what your weak points are (and generally speaking everything is a weak point!) so you don’t need to worry about targeting muscles.
You can often lift more weight with machines but this doesn’t translate to the ‘real thing’; you’re just kidding yourself if you think pressing 100kgs on a fixed machine is anything like 100kgs on a free barbell.
With this in mind use machines should generally be avoided when you are a beginner.
Once you have got the fundamentals of squatting, pressing and deadlifting and are getting stuck in your progress then you can use the machines as accessory aids to focus on a weak point, which by that point you will be aware of through experience.
But my gym is full of machines and no free weights!
Because using free weights takes practice and is more difficult they are not popular with the general fitness crowd. Commercial chain gyms know this so they fill their spaces with 5 £800 machines that work your chest from 5 different angles but don’t install a bench and a bar that would cost about £300.
I remember having a conversation with gym staff once about why there was no squat rack in their otherwise fairly well equipped weights area; the answer was that members had voted to replace it with a chest press machine.
Unfortunately this is pretty common and finding a gym which caters to people who want to train properly (and I don’t mean ‘hardcore’ but doing proper exercises such as squats) seems to be increasingly difficult.
From experience I have found that by staying away from the commercial gyms and looking for smaller, self-run gyms without the flashy websites are often much better equipped in a free weight sense for a quarter of the price.
It’s true that these places can sometimes be the bodybuilding ‘spit and sawdust’ gyms but equally I have found some good family owned facilities that even had women only weights areas.
Training programs should be built around the core compound free weight lifts like the squat, deadlift and bench press, with other exercises and machines used to complement those three.
So look around and try to find something which is equipped to encourage free weight lifting and do your best not to put too much emphasis on machines in your training.
If all else fails, there is always Ebay and your garage!