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Lifting With Machines vs. Free Weights: Which is Better?

Updated: Jan 22, 2022

So you're looking to build muscle. Maybe you want to build strength as well. Whatever it is that your goals are, you've got lots of options to choose from in the gym. You can do cardio machines, battle ropes, bodyweight exercises, and so on.


But the much of the of exercise in the gym seems to be done with two main options: free weights, and weight machines. They're both extremely popular choices when it comes to exercise.


You might've heard that machines are better suited for beginners who aren't as confident in their form, whereas free weights are more suitable for intermediate to advanced lifters who know their stuff.


But is this really the case? Are machines really less effective than free weights when it comes to building strength and muscle?


We'll be looking deeper into that in this post, by comparing the advantages of each training type, looking into some of the science behind this, drawing a conclusion based off of that, and how we can incorporate them both into our training.



Strong bodybuilder doing machine rows and building strength and muscle in his back and biceps whilst training very intensely.

Advantages of Weight Machines


Less Stabilization Requirements


The first and probably biggest advantage of using machines over free weights is the fact that your stabilizing muscles have to work less to keep the weight in control. This makes it much easier for you to focus on hitting the muscles that you're actually trying to target, instead of spreading your energy and focus across many different muscle groups.


For example, if you were to do a seated cable row, your stabilizing muscles would be less engaged throughout the movement, and you'd be able to focus more on hitting the lats or the upper back (depending on what you're targeting).


And while this may not be great for strength or even building a functional body, it does make machines a slightly better choice than free weights if your main and only goal is to build muscle size.


Because you're able to focus more heavily on your target muscles, and can place more load onto them, you will be able to stimulate more hypertrophy.


Generally Safer


Fit and athletic woman doing lat pulldowns to work her back and arms

Lifting with weight machines is also generally safer than lifting with free weights. In lots of cases and scenarios, free weights have you in a more dangerous or potentially risky position.


For example, in a barbell bench press, you're under the bar, and can get crushed under the weight if you fail to lift it. This can result in serious injury, or even death in some extreme cases.


However, if you were to lift with a chest press machine instead, you'd be hitting the same muscles, except you wouldn't be at risk of being crushed by the weights if you were to fail (assuming the machine isn't faulty or damaged of course).


The same goes for a barbell back squat, compared to a leg press. While you definitely can still get injured on these machines, you're much less likely to if you lift with proper form.


Since using machines usually puts you in safer positions, they're an especially good choice to use towards the ends of your training sessions when your muscles start to tire, and fatigue starts to kick in.


Form breakdown can happen sometimes towards the end of a training session, and we want to ensure that we're in the safest position possible if this does happen, to prevent and avoid injury.


You Can Lift Heavier


Due to the lesser need for stabilization of the weight, you can move more weight on a machine than you otherwise could with free weights.


And while some people think that doing your work on a machine is simply naturally less effective for growth, your muscles don't know the difference between lifting on a machine and lifting free weights.


The only thing that your muscles know is mechanical tension. The weight and stress that you put on the muscle. Your muscle only knows that it needs to move this weight, and that it needs to grow larger so that moving this load will be easier the next time around.


And since you're able to lift heavier on a weight machine, you can stimulate more muscular hypertrophy.


For example, we'll use the seated cable row again. Your lats do not know the difference between rowing on a machine and rowing with a barbell.


All it knows is that it needs to move this weight and grow to make this easier.


You're able to place more of a load onto the lats with a machine, and this stimulates more muscle growth in them.


Less Taxing on the Body


The last advantage of using a weight machine over free weights would be the fact that they're generally less taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS), and the core of the body.


Since you don't engage as many muscles throughout the body to lift the weight, using machines doesn't deplete your energy nearly as quickly as using free weights does. For example, when you do a pull up, you're engaging almost all all of the muscles in your upper body to quite a large degree.


Aside from just the back, your biceps and rear delts are working hard to stabilize your body, spinal erectors are engaged, and your abs are also working pretty hard to keep you in a strong position to pull yourself up.


However, compare this to a lat pulldown, and you'll realize that it doesn't use up nearly as much energy as the pull up does.


According to this study conducted by Jennifer K Hewit, "The PU is performed while being suspended from a bar, and therefore requires greater stabilization of the core throughout the execution of the exercise, than would be required if performed from a solid base of support (e.g. seated lat pulldown)."


So engaging less muscles throughout the entire body really helps to keep weight machines friendlier on the central nervous system and the body in general.


This may make weight machines the better option for those who train quite often, such as athletes who might train twice, or even three times a day.


It may also mean that choosing to lift on weight machines is more sensible for those who lift with high-frequency training splits, such as a full-body split 5 times a week. It would be incredibly, incredibly tough to get through a full week of training if all exercises were done with high intensity, on free weights.


Not only would your CNS suffer, your day would be completely filled with fatigue, and motivation would be drained very quickly.


You'd find it very hard to head into the gym, and even when you do get around to doing your workouts, you'll feel sluggish and tired for the majority of the time you spend in the gym.


So if you're a person who does lots of physical activity throughout the week (more than once a day), it's a good idea to learn when to utilize machines to prevent yourself from burning out and running out of energy.


Advantages of Free Weights


More Muscle Engagement


Strong and muscular Olympic lifter preparing to do barbell clean and jerk

While the lesser need for stabilization and core activation in machines is an advantage when it comes to purely muscle building, the higher muscle engagement of free weights is actually also an advantage, depending on how you look at it and what your goals are.


The higher muscle engagement means you're working more of the body with the same exercise, and likely also means that you'll find it easier to build a well-rounded physique, and not be lacking in those often overlooked stabilizing muscles.


Since you're working more total-body musculature, you'd also find that you burn more calories doing the same exercise than you would on a weight machine.


This may mean that free weight exercises such as the barbell squat would be a better option for those of you who are wanting to lose fat, as opposed to doing a leg press on the machine.


The fact that lifting with free weights engages more total body musculature likely means that fi you were to only train with one kind, free weights would be the better option.


Since you'd make it easier for yourself to build up a more well rounded physique, and wouldn't have to worry as much about lacking in the smaller muscles like the rear delts and abs.


Better for Balance and Coordination


Since you actually have to stabilize the weight when you're lifting with barbells and dumbbells, you'll naturally improve your balance and coordination better than you would with a machine.


This balance and coordination can come in handy in everyday tasks, such as carrying things in awkward positions like over the head.


It'll also benefits you to be able to balance yourself under load if you're an athlete, and you constantly find yourself in unstable positions. Many athletes need to produce force, and the more stable we are in our given position, the more force we can produce.


Overall, the ability to train your balance and coordination with free weights is definitely an advantage, as it can be applied to lots of everyday activities, and have direct impact on our athletic performance and capabilities as well.


May lead to Increased Testosterone


In a study conducted by Shane R Schwanbeck, it was found that "Men in the free-weight group had a greater increase in free testosterone from before to after acute training sessions than men in the machine group and all women".


And while this study did just find these results for men, the same may apply to women, but just with a slightly lesser increase. We know that testosterone is responsible for building skeletal muscle, and getting stronger, and so lifting with free weights may actually lead to increased strength and muscle gain over time, due to the accumulative extra increase in testosterone.


This is likely due to the higher muscle activation that you get out of free weights compared to lifting with weight machines, and is definitely a bonus. Who doesn't want extra gains by simply having more useful hormones?


More Time Efficient


Due to the higher muscle activation, higher calorie burn rate and more overall work done by the body, lifting with free weights also does tend to be more time efficient when compared to lifting with weight machines.


You build more overall muscle in the same amount of time, meaning sticking to mostly free weights will likely be the better option if you're a person who runs on a tight schedule, and doesn't have too much time in a day to commit into the gym.


A standard 5-6 exercise routine can take upwards of an hour and 15 minutes, and we realize that some people don't have that long to spend in the gym, or don't want to spend that long in the gym each day.


A way you could lessen the amount of time spent would be to stick to mostly free weights. While it is slightly less optimal for specifically targeted muscle hypertrophy, you do still get more overall bang for your buck, and you would save a lot of time by doing so.


You'll get a more effective workout in quicker, and be out of the gym doing your more important tasks much sooner.



Less Space Required


There's no doubt that lifting with free weights requires space. But when compared to lifting with machines, the space you need to use a barbell or a pair of dumbbells seems like nothing.


In most home garages, you could comfortably fit a barbell and a couple pairs of dumbbells, as well as a bench and some other equipment.


And with a single barbell and a proper way to get set up, you can work your entire body very effectively.


However, to use machines, you'd likely need a separate machine for each exercise (chest press machine, lat pulldown machine, etc.).


This might mean that free weights are the better option for those who like to train at home, and are looking to purchase some new equipment so that they can train at home.


There are power towers and other 'complete home gyms' that are all-in-one, but those would likely be far, far most costly than an appropriately weighted barbell or pair of dumbbells.


So Which is Better?


Well, we hate to disappoint you, but it really depends on your goals. Both free weights and weight machines are effective.


However, if we were to pick just one to do and completely disregard the other, we'd choose to go with free weights.


This is because of the more total-body engagement, as well as the higher calorie burn (good for staying fit), and more time efficiency. Plus, the extra testosterone is great for staying healthy and strong.


Free weights simply give you more bang for your buck, and would likely be the better single option for most people. You can stimulate large amounts of growth all throughout the body, build functional strength, and become a better overall athlete.


However this is not to say that you shouldn't use weight machines either. They're not just for beginners. If your goal is purely muscular hypertrophy, and nothing else, weight machines would actually be the better option.


You get a better chance to specifically target your muscles, can lift heavier weight (more mechanical tension), and reduce the chances of injury, which can greatly set you back if you are unfortunate to suffer one.


And let's face it, more athletes and lifters will face some type of injury some time in their training career.


Otherwise, unless you're specifically and only looking to build muscle, free weights are likely the better option overall for you.


Still, look to incorporate both training styles into your program if you can, as they both have their unique benefits, and you want to reap as many of them as you possibly can.


How to Incorporate Free Weights and Machines Into Your Routine


When it comes to incorporating these two training styles into your routine, you should look at the advantages of each kind and work around them.


Free weights are better for functional strength and total body engagement, therefore you should look to do more of your heavy lifting with free weights, towards the beginning of your workouts. You'll train much more of your body to be comfortable under heavy loads, and build much more overall strength.


Look to lift in the heavier set and rep schemes with free weights, generally doing 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps per set, depending on your goals. The heavier you lift, the less volume you'll do.


Then, your secondary compound lifts and majority of your isolation exercises could be done with machines, to take advantage of the lesser need for stabilization, really allowing you to focus hard on destroying the target muscles.


You can focus all of your energy into the target muscle, knowing that your other, smaller muscles have been worked and taxed pretty heavily already if you've done your free weight lifting right.


Look to lift in the more moderate set and rep ranges, of 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps. This is optimal for muscle growth, do this and you'll be well on your way to developing both the body and strength that you've always dreamt of having