The Great Weight Debate: Free Weights vs. Machines

11.08.2011 / Blog Posts Health and Wellness

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Wondering which one is better? WOW's contributing personal trainer, Becky Johnson, reveals the good and the bad that come with each exercise method.

When it comes to strength training, there has been much discussion and debate over which method is more effective: machine-based exercises or the use of free weights (dumbbell exercises.) The reality is each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

As a trainer, I like to incorporate a variety of equipment in my client’s strength training programs. One size does not necessarily fit all. The choice depends on your level of experience, your exercise goals and, to some extent, your personal preference. An understanding of these elements will help you decide if free weights or machines - or a combination of both - will help reach your fitness goals.


- Easier and Safe to Use - Machines work on a fixed path. This makes it easier for individuals to learn and execute the movement with correct form, even when fatigue starts to set in. This can be a big safety plus, especially for those new to strength training.

- Less Intimidating - Pictures and instructions are often posted right on the equipment. This makes understanding what the exercise is designed to do and how to properly execute the movement much less nerve racking.

- Saves Time - You can usually move from one machine to the next with ease with the way most machines are set up in a gym. Also, changing the resistance is as simple as moving a pin.

- Specific Focus - When compared to free weights, certain machines are more efficient at isolating a specific muscle or muscle group. This is especially important when rehabbing from an injury or when focusing on strengthening a particular body part.


- Limited Possibilities - Many machines are designed with only one exercise in mind, which means you will need multiple machines to get a complete total body workout.

- Size Does Matter - If you are shorter or taller than average, you may find that certain pieces of equipment are not as accommodating. However, many machines have adjustable seats or machine setting to fit an individual’s size and height.

- Predetermined Path - This is also a disadvantage because the fixed movement makes it difficult to work both the stabilizer muscles and the body on other planes of motion.


- More Functional - With free weights you are able to complete movements in different planes of motion, allowing you to perform movements used in daily activities

- Incorporates Stabilizers – When using free weights, your body is responsible for creating and supporting the range of motion of each exercise, including stabilizing muscles, which are often neglected.

- Versatile - A total body workout is well within your reach. Free weights give you the ability to perform a wide variety of exercises that target various muscle groups.

- Convenient - Free weights are portable, inexpensive and take up little space, which makes for a great in-home option.


- Lack of Support - Learning how to properly perform an exercise takes more time and skill, and often requires some instruction when using them for the first time.

- Risk for Injury - Training alone can lead to injury if you don’t use proper form.

- Difficult to Isolate - Free weights require very precise technique when performing an exercise, which can make targeting and isolating a particular muscle difficult.


Generally speaking, if you are new to strength training, it is a good idea to begin with weight machines until you become more comfortable with the movements. If you are a more experienced exerciser, you may wish to use free weights, as they offer more versatility in terms of exercise selection.

Overall, when it comes to strength training the best option is to use a combination of free weights and machine-based exercises. Together they can add more variety to your program and result in greater training benefits.

Need help with technique? A personal trainer can help teach you proper form and select exercises that are in line with your personal fitness goals. Feel free to post any questions about this blog and I’ll be happy to answer them. I would love to hear your feedback!

Stay Healthy and Fit,
- Becky

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