If you walk into most gyms, you’re most likely to see shelves filled with free weights or kettle bells lined up against a large mirror, and the rest of the space taken up by larger weight machines. More likely than not, both will be in heavy use. If you’re newer to weight training, you may be wondering whether to start with those free weights or to wait for your turn on a machine. More experienced gym goers, likewise, may be wondering which method of weight training is more effective towards their goals.
The answer isn’t always cut-and-dry, and the methods you focus on will depend on your weight training goals. Below we’ve put together a list of the pros and cons of free weights vs. weight machines; read on to see where each technique shines as well as their shortcomings.
Ease of Use
Machines win out in this category, as the diagrams they provide and the fact that they strictly limit your movement make it easy to intuitively figure out how to safely use them. Free weight techniques, on the other hand, require practice to nail the form, and improper technique could easily lead to injury.
When it comes to building strength for practical purposes, free weights are what you should choose. Machines target large muscle groups but neglect smaller, stabilizing muscles required for most real-life activities. Training these stabilizing muscles are especially important for athletes to avoid injury.
Machines make it easier to target specific large muscle groups, which can be ideal for rehabilitating injuries or building size in stronger muscle groups. Although this also means that you can only target a single group per machine, whereas most free weight techniques target a wide range of muscles at once.
Once again, there’s no clear winner here. Free weights are portable and can be used anywhere and, as their name suggests, they allow for more freedom in workout variation due to their versatility. High-resistance free weight workouts like squats or bench press require a trainer or at least a spotter, however, whereas most machines can be used by yourself.
Finally, if you’re thinking of buying your own equipment, free weights will be much easier on your wallet. Even a broad range of weights won’t run you nearly as much as some of the more expensive machines.
As you can see, a combination of both free weights and machines is ideal for most people, which is why most gyms come equipped with both. But based on your individual needs, you may benefit from one technique over the other. More importantly, if you’re unsure which training techniques are best for you, the best piece of advice is always to ask a personal trainer to avoid injury!