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When you walk into any small or large fitness center, you will see both free weights and weight training machines for various strength training. Some people use only the free weights, and some go from machine to machine to get in their workout. This creates the question: which is better for you?

What are Free Weights?

Dictionary.com defines a free weight as “a weight used for weightlifting whose motion is not constrained by external apparatus.”

Free weights are either picked up by your hand or attached to a barbell.

Examples of free weights:

  • Barbell (weighted bar) with weight plates
  • Dumbbell
  • Kettlebell
  • Medicine ball
  • Sandbags
  • Weighted bands/cuffs (for ankles and wrists)

THE PROS

  • Free weights are versatile. You can perform a wide range of exercises, keeping your body guessing and challenging it in different ways.
  • They are functional, meaning they can be used to perform natural, compound movement patterns that translate to the real world.
  • Free weights allow you to express full range of motion through the joints, activating stabilizing muscles and reducing injury risk (when used correctly).

THE CONS

  • Free weights can be a little overwhelming for beginners. Movements may seem a little complex.
  • Some of the more effective exercises (squat, bench press, etc) can require a spotter to make progress safely.
  • Because of the wide range of possible movements, free weight exercises are easy to do in an improper manner, which can sometimes result in injury.

What are Machines?

Exercise machines are defined as “a machine or device used for physical exercise or training.”

Exercise machines include:

  • Treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Cable machine
  • Pulley machine
  • Nautilus machine
  • Leg extension
  • Multi-use machine

These machines are designed to either focus on one specific muscle group or multiple depending on the machine. For example, a Nautilus machine is designed as a full-body workout machine, free weights not needed.

THE PROS

  • They’re beginner friendly – most machines are pretty easy to use and come with instructions.
  • Usually you don’t need a spotter to train safely.
  • Using machines, it can sometimes be easier to isolate certain muscle groups if necessary in your training plan.

THE CONS

  • Many machines do not allow you to express full range of motion around the joints. This may encourage faulty movement patterns and increase your injury risk, but usually restricting movement can reduce injury to the beginner.
  • Moving a weight through one plane could be described as unnatural – you are not required to activate many stabilizing muscles, which is why you must use multiple machines to achieve the same workout as with free weights many times.
  • Weight machines are usually pretty busy during peak hours, and much more expensive than free weights if you want to purchase your own.

Summary

The Perfect Mix

Of course, there are benefits to using both free weights and weight machines as part of your workout routine. A balanced weight training program would incorporate both on alternate training days. In order to benefit from both muscle strength and joint stability, you would focus on free weights for some exercises and weight machines for others. 

If you’re fairly comfortable using just free weights, it’s possible you could experience greater strength gains than using weight machines. But, the right balance comes down to your personal preference.

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