Free Weights vs Machines: Which Is Better For Your Body?

Whether you are gym enthusiast or more of a casual gym goer you have probably heard of the immense benefits that can be reaped from weight training. According to a study published in October 2017 in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, just 30 minutes twice a week of high intensity resistance and impact training was shown to improve functional performance, as well as bone density, structure, and strength in postmenopausal women with low bone mass — and it had no negative effects.

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So, we know that strength training is a great way to maintain your physical fitness throughout your life, but what’s the best way to do it? The two main weight training mediums are free weights and gym machines. So which is better? 

The Benefits of Free Weights 

Benefits of Free Weights, Free Weight Versus Weight Machines

Free Weights Activate More Muscles

If you have ever taken an exercise class that uses free weights you have probably heard the term “activate your core” or “activate your glutes” as you are doing an exercise. The reason that “activation” is such a big deal when using dumbells or other free weights is because free weights require active stabilization throughout the body. Meaning that when you are doing a few tricep rows keeping your core engaged and active stabilizes those muscles and protects you from injury.  

A few leading studies have found that the activation of these stabilizing muscles truly gives free weights the edge over weight machines. Because your body has to work to support the weight and control the movement, your larger muscles, stabilizer muscles, and core all work together. This makes one simple movement, like a dumbbell squat, an exercise that requires deeper engagement and coordination from the majority of your body. So, from this perspective free weights can offer more wholly conditions and strengthen your muscles. 

Plus, free weight movements are usually functional movements. Meaning, that doing a few bicep curls or weighted squats are movements that occur in your daily life, whether you’re bringing in the groceries or picking up your kid. Hence, free weight exercises also yield benefits in your everyday life.

Free Weights Allow For Greater Range of Motion

Everyone has a very unique body composition, which results in different movement patterns from person to person. Free weights allow you to use your own natural range of motion. Just take a look at an exercise as basic as the squat. You will not find two people who will squat exactly the same.

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Everyone has different limb lengths, bone anatomy, joint restrictions, and flexibility. Just like snowflakes, no two squats are exactly alike. So, by using free weights you are able to control your movements in a way that feels right to your body. Machines on the other hand, generally restrict the range of motion to one fixed path. You can only move in the direction the machine has designated.

Free Weights Burn More Calories 

According to one study published in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, participants burned up to 50% more calories by completing free weight exercises in comparison to weight machine. This increase in the amount of calories burned is most likely linked to the muscle stabilization that occurs when you use free weights. Makes sense right? As more muscles are activated and used in one exercise you would probably expect to use more calories. 

So, the fact that you get more caloric bang for your free weight buck doesn’t only mean that the only benefit you reap is increased fat burn. In fact, getting more out of an exercise also means that you don’t have to overwork your muscles. For example, by getting more out of a couple sets using free weights versus doing more sets with a weight machine, you are putting less overall strain on your body. Essentially, free weights are the quick and dirty way to get the most out of your workout compared to weight machines. 

Free Weights Are More Versatile 

One of the most obvious advantages of free weights is their versatility. Because they are not connected to any fixed range of motion, you can use free weights to do just about any possible exercise. These include squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, curls etc.

Machines are the opposite. They generally are designed for one specific exercise in a very specific manner. An example might be the leg extension machine, which trains just your quadriceps in one plane. Because free weights allow you to perform a much wider variety of exercises, they allow you to lift in your own natural range of motion and they are easy to scale. 

The Benefits of Weight Machines 

Benefits of Weight Machines, Free Weights Versus Weight Machines

Weight Machines Are Better For Rehabbing Injuries 

It’s true that if you’re using free weights, you have to recruit so many stabilizing muscles. However, when you’re getting started, using weight machines and just learning the movement pattern is okay too. One of the main drawbacks of machine weights is that they remove the stability component required to build coordination and balance. However, removing the stability component is useful in some situations.

Perhaps someone is dealing with an injury that prevents them from performing free weight compound exercises. Machines can provide a safe alternative for someone who needs to strengthen a certain muscle group or movement pattern during rehabilitation therapy while minimizing the need for other supporting muscles. 

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One study that focused on the rehabilitation of hamstring injuries found that using weight machines was a more effective exercise in regaining leg strength than resistance band exercises. Researchers found that this was because weight machines relieved the strain and prompted increased strength of the injured areas. So, if you are dealing with an injury or would like to avoid excess strain, weight machines are a great option. 

Weight Machines Are Beginner Friendly

Plus, if you haven’t got full strength or balance or full range of motion, machines are much safer. Learning how to properly perform functional exercises is difficult. Not many people will be able to pick up free weights and execute squats or deadlifts with proper form.  These are all skills that need to be acquired through practice.

Machines, on the other hand, have a very small learning curve. In fact, there isn’t much to it. You sit down, adjust the machine to your body size and select the weight that you are going to lift. If you cannot lift the weight, the machine simply goes back to its neutral position.

Weight Machines Target Very Specific Muscles 

Machines are designed to train one specific muscle group in a specific pattern. This may also be useful to you if you need to strengthen one body part. Free weights usually tend to involve multiple muscle groups, no matter how hard you try to isolate a particular muscle.

What’s even better is that weight machine stats and adjustments are simple to take note of. Seat and lever adjustments on machines are easy to track. You can make notes on the adjustment settings so that each time you workout you know that the equipment is set-up correctly for a consistent session. This allows you to focus on gradual weight increases knowing that you are performing the exercise in the same way from one session to the next.

The Free Weights Versus Weight Machine Verdict 

Weight Machines Vs. Free Weights Verdict

Although both forms of weight lifting do have its benefits, the winner in terms of biggest bang for your buck is free weight lifting. As long as you do not have any existing injuries and are comfortable moving around weights, free weight training offers the most benefits. 

What has your experience been with weight training? Which has worked best for you? Let us know in the comments!

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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
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