Walk into any gym, and you’ll see the same thing.
Most people are flocked around the weightlifting machines like the pec deck, lateral raise machine, and cable curls.
And if you were to ask both groups why they train the way they do, they’d both give you what sound like good answers.
The other side says that free weights are better for building whole-body strength and muscle and give you more “bang for your buck” in terms of gym time, and that weightlifting machines can’t hold a candle to free weights in any regard.
So, which side should you listen to?
Well, the short answer is that if you want to build muscle as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible, then you want to use free weights for the majority of your training.
That doesn’t mean machines are useless, though, and you’ll usually make faster progress if you use both machines and free weights.
By the end of this article, you’ll know the difference between free weights and machines, the pros and cons of both training methods, and how to get the benefits of both training styles.
Let’s start at square one.
There’s no definitive definition for what’s considered a “machine exercise” and a “free weight exercise,” but in general, here’s how people differentiate them:
A machine exercise locks you into a fixed range of motion, where you only need to focus on pushing the weight.
The chest press machine is a common example. Here’s what it looks like:
In this case, the handles are locked into a fixed path, and all you have to do is push.
Machine exercises usually require specialized weightlifting machines, like a bicep curl machine, or they can be as simple as a handle attached to a cable.
A free weight exercise is one that forces you to control the direction of a weight while you move it, using many other muscles to keep the weight moving in the right direction.
The bench press is a good example, where you have to use the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders, back, and legs to keep the bar moving in the right direction, while your chest does the lion’s share of actually pushing the weight.
Most free weight exercises tend to use dumbbells and barbells, but they can also include kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls, and other tools.
There’s a fair amount of overlap between free weights and machines, but there are also some key differences that put free weights on top.
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Talk to any group of lifters with several years of training under their belts, and 99% of them will tell you that free weights are better than machines.
For the most part, they’re right.
What this means is that with every rep of a free weight exercise, you use more total muscle mass than you would on a machine exercise.
On the other hand, a machine leg exercise like the leg extension does a good job of training your quads, and not much else.
Free weights also have the benefit of being the same no matter where you go. Barbells and dumbbells in New York are almost exactly the same as they are in Los Angeles, or anywhere else in the world.
Machines, though, are far more specialized. A leg extension machine from one company might feel very different from one from another company, and that can make it hard to track your progress if you change gyms frequently.
For the same reason, free weights are a much better option for home gyms.
You can train every muscle in your body effectively with a barbell, some weights, and a few dumbbells.
That’s not the case with machines.
To fully equip a home gym, you need a variety of different machines which costs more and takes up more space than free weights.
So, if you have to choose between training exclusively with free weights or machines, you should choose the former.
The good news? You don’t have to choose.
Despite their drawbacks, it’s still wise to include a few machine exercises in your workout routine.
Sure, you can do barbell calf raises, but it becomes very difficult to do those effectively once you start using heavier weights.
The calves respond best to a combination of bent-leg and straight-leg calf exercises, both of which are easier to do with machines.
Take the seated calf raise, for instance. Would you rather use a machine, or lay a heavy barbell across your thighs?
I’m guessing you’d prefer the calf machine.
Another benefit of machine exercises is that they can be useful for training lagging muscle groups.
As you just learned, machine exercises don’t involve as many muscle groups as free weight exercises.
Normally, that’s a bad thing, but what if you want to focus on a particular muscle group?
That’s where machines can come in handy.
Let’s say that you’ve already done several heavy sets of bench, and your arms and shoulders are fried. You feel like your chest could use some more volume, though, so you hop on the chest press machine and knock out a few more sets.
Here are some other examples of how you could use machines to train lagging muscle groups:
You know that you should spend most of your time training with free weights.
You also know that machines can be helpful for training lagging muscle groups.
So, when should you start training with free weights, and how much should you use machines?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with jumping into the deep end and training with free weights from the very beginning. In fact, some of the best beginner weightlifting routines around are based on barbell exercises, like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5 x 5.
If you don’t feel ready to start using barbells and dumbbells, though, then you can still make rapid progress using machine exercises in the beginning.
As a rough guide, you can use this chart to decide how much time to spend on machines and free weights.
Start your workouts with several sets of a free weight exercise, like squats, so you can practice your technique before you’re tired.
Once you feel comfortable with one free weight exercise, replace several of your machine exercises with more free weight training. Keep that up until you’re doing 70 to 80 percent of your training with free weights.
In most cases, which machines you use comes down to what’s available and your personal preferences.
Typically, you want to prioritize machine exercises that involve as much muscle as possible. For example, a machine chest press will generally use more muscle than a pec deck.
As long as you’re doing most of your training with free weights, though, it doesn’t matter all that much which machine exercises you use. Pick a few that target the muscles you most want to grow, get as strong as you can on those exercises, then swap them out with other exercises once you plateau.
When you’re putting together a workout routine, here are some good machine exercises to start with:
All things considered, free weight exercises are better than machines.
They activate more muscle with every rep, which leads to more muscle growth in the long-run.
That said, you don’t have to choose one or the other.
Machine exercises can be helpful for bringing up lagging muscle groups, especially the arms, shoulders, and calves.
If you want to build as much muscle as possible, you’ll want to use free weights for the majority of your training, and then strategically use machines to work on the muscle groups you want to grow the most.
Armistead Legge is the Director of Content for Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics. He has completed over 100 triathlons and cross-country, cycling, and adventure races, and has researched and written for over a dozen organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. When he isn't helping people get into the best shape of their lives, he's lifting weights, riding his bike, hiking, camping, reading, and making delicious food.