At the Gym: When to Use Machines vs. Free Weights

Walk into any commercial gym and you will find a combination of free weights and machines. For first time lifters or even experienced gym-goers, the choice between lifting with free weights or machines can be a confusing debate. There is a lot of different information regarding the subject, which only adds to the confusion.

The reality is that this is not a black and white debate and there is a pretty significant list of pros and cons for both types of training. Before we get into anything else, let’s look at machine use.

Getting a feel for the movement

Athlete taking his time with bench press

Machines may be a safer way to attempt new exercises. | iStock.com

If you are a beginner in the weight room, machines might be the best and safest way to build muscle while also learning the basic motions of lifting. Allowing yourself to do bodyweight routines to build muscle and incorporating machines to get extra resistance is a great way for beginners to build a base before trying out the free weights.

Even though machines seem super basic, remember that starting light is key, and it also may benefit you to ask someone who works at your gym for help or advice as to what machines are best for your particular goals.

Training without a spotter

Man training without spotter

Machines allow you to train without a spotter. | iStock.com

According to ACE Fitness, “The fact that machines work on a fixed path 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 who are new to strength training.”

When you are trying to lift heavier and do not have a spotter with you at the gym, it is smart to use machines in order to protect yourself and your muscles. This can also be helpful for people who are beginners in the weight room. Machines leave little to the imagination when it comes to weight potential and range of motion, so it is a shoe in for those who are learning how to lift, or just starting out with a lifting regimen as well.

Isolating the muscle

man holding dumbbell to work his triceps

Machines allow you to better target certain muscles. | iStock.com

According to Bodybuilding.com, no one can completely isolate a particular muscle. Machines, however, can reduce the contribution to particular areas and take the strain away from your joints. This results in greater emphasis on the target muscle. This isolation is key for experienced lifters who often use free weights but may want to target one area that would be hard to target otherwise.

Now, what about free weights?

Sports training

dad and son playing soccer

Free weights build more usable strength. | iStock.com

According to Bodybuilding.com, the strength you build on machines doesn’t always transfer well to sports and other activities you do outside the gym. During sports activities, your body is typically in motion and frequently off-balance, and that chaos is nearly impossible to duplicate on a machine. You also don’t improve your coordination and balance when you rely on machine training.

More potential

man staring at a dumbbell

Training with dumbbells could give you more gains. | iStock.com

Free weights allow you to reach a higher potential. There is no pre-set range or weight when you are using free weights, and you have the ability to either go up or down in weight, depending on how you feel.

Free weights also are helpful because they target your whole body. In order to utilize free weights you must tighten other muscles, which in turn creates a whole toning experience. Free weights can also be used to reach an even higher level of strength when used properly and making sure you have a spotter and appropriate crash bars.

Getting full range of motion

Group of people lifting weights

These weights allow a greater range of motion than machines. | iStock.com/UberImages

According to Bodybuilding.com, while restricting the movement is an advantage for beginner lifters, once you have the experience, getting a wider range of motion becomes even more important. With free weights, you have to control the motion and stability and know how to work specific muscle groups.

“Inherently that’s the biggest advantage of free weights — you can do those multi-joint movements that are best for size and strength,” Reid told Bodybuilding.com. “If you want to put on quality size, the bench, squat, and dead lift must be incorporated into your training.”

While there are a few keys to using machines, there are also times when it is important to head to the dumbbells and barbells. No matter what, you need to be mindful of the weight that you are using, and know that using too much weight could lead to compensation and pulled muscles. Find a happy medium between free weight and machine use, and remember to use spotters and have workout buddies when necessary.