Machines or Free Weights… What’s better and why?

Some gyms are absolutely flooded with weight lifting machines and have barely any free weights. I don’t know if this is the case in your area, but every YMCA I have been to in Canada (about a dozen!) lives up to this reputation. The gyms have this tiny little weight pit surrounded by endless machines – worst of all, rows and rows of cardio equipment face right towards the squat rack in my city’s YMCA.


So there has been an ongoing debate about whether free weights or machines are better. The most obvious answer is that free weights are natural and therefore they should be better. But many stick to the weight training machines and do not touch a single dumbbell.

This may come in ‘fear of getting too big’ or just based on ignorance. Referencing the YMCA again, their program here for new signups shows what all the weight lifting machines do but doesn’t demonstrate a single free weights exercise.


Which is Safer?

The most important subject to cover is whether free weights or machines are safer. No one wants to be increasing their risk of injury based on their preference between the two.


The short answer is that free weights are safer, here’s why:

Free weights are safer because they allow the body to perform the natural range of motion for a movement with realistic resistance. We are in control of the movement. The only opposing controller comes from the natural resistance of the weight load. This means that if we fail near the top of the rep, it will naturally de-contract the muscle and gradually work back to the starting state.

Alternatively, performing the same movement on a machine will mean that we are putting the machine in control. This means that the human movement patterns involved with the exercise are not utilized. Even worse, especially on the Smith Machine, is that you are limited to training on a machine that makes the assumption that everyone is the same.

Simply put, every body type is different and requires a different range of motion. However, this is not something that can be accommodated if a machine is being used – but free weights allow the lifter to perform the movement while the resistance is applied toward their body’s movement pattern.

Even with the form support, weight machines can still cause injury if too much weight, improper form, or overtraining occurs. It is not that hard to use the wrong form, plus the machine lets us easily force out the reps. This could put unnecessary strain if the wrong muscles are being activated. Many that use machines religiously do full body workouts as well, which is easily subjective to overtraining.


Why Free Weights Reign King

The list goes on and on about why free weights should be used over weight machines. Aside from the increased safety, here are some key reasons:

  • Small, stabilizing muscles get brought into the movement. This is very important as you do not want to just directly train certain muscles, but rather improve the strength of the body as a whole. So after years of machine training one feels stronger and can lift heavier things, but certain stabilizers are still weak, and the potential for injury is higher.

  • There’s no limitation to range of motion created by the machine and your body type. This means that you can always get the full contraction regardless of what the exercise is. This is very important for the purpose of building muscle or getting lean.

  • Free weight movements, such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press, can be performed and target many different muscles to exhaust the body in a short period of time. Weight machines only partially tire one out and usually have just target the primary muscle in the movement.

  • Variation: one can perform specific exercises in different ways – such as the front, back, and box squat. One can also perform all different types of movements for a particular muscle group instead of limiting it to one or two machines.


What’s the Bottom Line – Free Weights or Machines?

Machines are not incredibly horrible. They do have their place – they are great for beginners and they help with rehabilitating from an injury. They can also serve as an accessory movement for chiseling the body once mass is put on.

However, they are definitely not results-driven and they still pose a risk for injury. Free weights are known for causing injury, but only because people use the incorrect form or try to do too much too soon.

Therefore, if we want to get the most out of weightlifting and are not one of the few exceptions (absolute beginner or rehabilitating from injury) then we should be using free weights. It is okay to use weight machines for a finishing exercise or to switch things up every now and then, but do not base an entire workout off of them.

With that said, be conscious that free weight movements are done with proper form. It’s also beneficial to learn how to fail out of big movements, such as the squat or bench press. It’s advisable to get a trainer from the  gym to watch over your form when starting out to minimize the risk of injury.

Learning the fundamentals of using free weights are vital to muscle building efforts. If just beginning to switch over to free weights from weight machines, begin on a lower weight and rep cycle to minimize injury and improve all connective tissue not used when performing machine movements, your body will thank you.