I’m honestly surprised that people still debate whether it is better to use free weight exercises or machines because the answer is clear to me. In my opinion, there are only rare occasions when machine exercises are necessary because free weights are so much more functional!
It’s true, any form of physical exercise will improve your body and health in at least one way.
However, using free weights instead of machines is an easy switch that anyone can make to improve their body more.
If machines are your only option, combine exercise machines and bodyweight exercises to get a better workout! Regardless of whether you have access to free weights or not, you should never avoid the opportunity for physical exercise when you have the time.
Taking the time for even a moderate amount of physical exercise will:
- Promote Heart Health and Function
- Improve the Physical Capabilities of Your Body
- Boost Your Immune System
- Improve Your Mood and Reduce Stress
However, there are still better options for physical exercise, and each person has unique training needs.
As seen in nearly every weightlifting center in America, some people believe it is impossible to get a good workout done without the aid of fixed machine exercises.
Modern gyms often are filled with expensive machinery and modern equipment that can help build your body, but only in certain situations. Many gyms (*Planet Fitness*) focus a large part of their resources on exercise machines, while they dedicate less space to dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and other more functional equipment.
In my opinion, free weights are the superior training option for most people. Elderly fitness lovers, people revering from an injury, or those who have limited motor-development will benefit from machine exercises the most, since every other healthy individual will obtain more benefits from the challenge provided by free weight exercises.
Whether you choose free weights or machines depends on your goals and ability level, but in my opinion, choosing to exercise with free weights is the best option!
What is the Difference: Free Weights vs Machines
The distinct difference between training with free weights and machines is that when you use free weights, you have a “free” movement pattern for the exercise you are doing, compared to the fixed position of machine exercises.
Without a doubt, free weight exercises use a larger range of muscles during each exercise, and they are more taxing on your body. Over time, your muscles will develop significantly more if you use primarily free weights.
Not only will you build more muscle (or burn more calories), your workouts will be far more efficient as well.
There are many different forms of exercises with free weights, notably:
Interestingly enough, I do consider cable “machines” as free weights. Although cable attachments are a type of machine, they function entirely as a free weight. Your body can move organically when you are using cable exercises, which is why I consider them to be “free weights.”
Is There Ever a Reason to Use Machine Exercises?
Although I rarely ever use machine exercises, I do believe that they are beneficial for some people. For example, machines can become a savior for rehabilitating injuries when used properly.
Although free weights are certainly necessary for a lot of injury rehabilitation, machines are very useful for isolating muscle groups or movement patterns which need an extra boost. In certain situations, it is far more effective to isolate a certain muscle by using a machine exercise.
The negative side-effect of using a machine exercise is that it will only work the body in one precise range of motion, but it is occasionally beneficial and even necessary.
Another example of a reason to use machine exercises is for older adults, who want to remain active in any way. They can certainly use free weight exercises as well, but machines can accomplish a lot for them.
The important thing is to ensure that you do not rely on machines for the bulk of your normal training routine since it will undoubtedly cause imbalances and weaknesses in your body.
For the majority of people, there are many more health benefits from using free weights instead of machines.
What are the Advantages of Training with Free Weight Exercises?
As I said before, free weight exercises are far more beneficial for your body.
Even if you are performing a machine exercise that is considered a compound movement (such as the leg press), the machine exercises will not work your body as intensely as a comparative exercise with free weights.
An excellent example of the comparative benefit of exercises with free weights was proven through a study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, entitled “A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography.”
The study intended to determine whether a free weight squat or a Smith machine squat would be more effective for activating the muscles of the legs, and the stabilizing muscles of the legs and the core.
To determine this, participants performed one set of eight repetitions using their original 8RM (eight-rep max). While the participants performed their squats, electromyographic (EMG) activity measured muscle activity of their leg and core muscles.
Although the study concluded that there was no significant difference between the free weight squat and the Smith machine squat in the percentage of individual muscle used (all muscles activated equally on each version of the squat), the free weight squat averaged 43% higher overall EMG activity!
If you choose to use free weights instead of machines, you can legitimately believe you are working your muscles about 40% more for all your exercises!
Especially when you consider compound movements such as the back squat, deadlift, and the bench press; you can get a full body workout in an extremely short amount of time with free weights! Furthermore, you can easily amplify the benefits of free weights by using simple tools such as the Fat Gripz.
It is much more difficult to do any modification to machine exercises, and their overall range of use is very limited.
Free Weight Movements and Stabilizing Muscles
As the study published above concluded,
“The free weight squat may be more beneficial than the Smith machine squat for individuals who are looking to strengthen plantar flexors, knee flexors, and knee extensors.”
One of the most significant advantages of training predominately with free weights is that you must work to coordinate and stabilize the body entirely on your own, which is directly applicable to real-life situations.
Initial stages of injury recovery can include a variety of simple machine exercises, but true performance recovery must involve free weights.
Especially for anyone who is an athlete (even in high school), training with free weights is completely necessary for developing a functional and athletic body. Machines are detrimental to athleticism in some ways since they will add bulk without adding strength or coordination.
In fact, over-using machine exercises will reduce the ability of your stabilizing muscle groups, and can negatively effect your muscle and joint stability.
Are Free Weights or Machines Better for Training at Home?
For many reasons, people can opt to do their workouts at home, compared to at a commercial fitness center. Outside of social and psychological factors, there is also a large difference in the equipment you will have available if you train at home instead of a fitness center.
Machines are very expensive and will take up a large amount of space, which is why they are inefficient for home use.
If you are going to be training at home often, the most logical choice is to use free weights and bodyweight exercises. Free weights are very affordable, especially if you understand where to purchase them.
Also, they require far less space than machines. You can put your dumbbells or kettlebells in nearly any room of your house to get a good workout. Barbells are a little bit tricker, and probably need to be in a basement or a garage.
Buying used fitness equipment is an excellent way to build a home gym on a limited budget, especially if you choose to purchase dumbbells and barbells instead of exercise machines.
If you are going to use a machine, I highly recommend you choose a Total Gym because you can do a lot of different exercises in a small space. For an “exercise machine,” the Total Gym is as efficient as it gets.
Concluding Thoughts – Machines vs Free Weight Exercises
As an athlete, machines seem completely useless to me. I often see other athletes using the leg press, machine bench press or other similar machines, and it fascinates me that they honestly believe it is beneficial.
The science clearly shows that exercises using free weights activate more primary mover muscles and stabilizing muscles, making them far more effective overall.
Unless you are beginning to rehabilitate an injury or you are of an age that using free weights is too strenuous, machine exercises are not necessary.