Man, talk about a topic that’s been beaten to death. The “free weight versus machines” debate has raged as long as I’ve been a lifter – and probably much longer, though that’s not a topic on which I’ve done any historical research. To be honest, I never really understood why so many see the issue as contentious. After all, nothing is stopping you from using both machines and free weights in the gym, and it would make sense to make use of all the tools available to help reach your goals.
However, I do recognize that machines and free weights are quite different, and one may be more advantageous than the other in certain contexts. For those struggling to create their own perfect training program, it can be really helpful to understand those advantages and disadvantages, and how they might influence results.
The Strength of Free Weights
Let’s get one thing clear up front: free weights are no more “hardcore” than machines. In fact, I really hate the term hardcore (as it applies to strength sports, at least), as it only benefits the ego – it has no relevance whatsoever to effective training.
However, free weights do have a number of advantages over machine-based movements. For example:
- Free weights require your stabilizer muscles to work harder than they would on machines. The squat is my favorite example of this. To squat most productively, you must brace your abs, flex your lats and rear delts, and root your feet – all merely to support the bar! That means all those muscles are getting at least some work that they wouldn’t be getting on, say, a hack squat or leg press.
- Competition movements involve free weights. As far as I know, no traditional resistance machines are involved in strength competitions. So, if you’re training for powerlifting, strongman, CrossFit, The Highland Games, or anything of the sort, you must practice using free weights to be prepared for competition.
- Free weights (generally) allow for more creativity. Creativity is important in the weight room, because oftentimes, addressing weaknesses requires the use of non-traditional movements and movement patterns. Machines by design lock you into a fixed movement pattern, and are therefore usually less helpful for this purpose.
Watch the video below for more on the importance of creativity!
My Take on Machines
While we typically think of machines as more modern than barbells, the truth is, they have been used for resistance training for nearly 200 years – not quite as long as free weights, but darn close. However, while barbell “technology” has remained stagnant, new machines are constantly produced and marketed, which probably helps to create that modern feel.
But regardless of how old or new a machine might be, the advantages it offers over a barbell will result from the fixed movement pattern it provides. While I listed the use of stabilizer muscles as an advantage above, the truth is, the need to support a freely-moving barbell can also have drawbacks. Here are some specific situations where machines might be more advantageous than free weights:
- Machines may offer more control and safety. I strongly prefer the use of machines when rehabbing an injury, because you have much more control, stability, and therefore safety when operating in a fixed movement pattern. (Of course, if you compete, you’ll eventually need to transition away from machines and back to competition movements, but machines can still be an integral part of the rehab process.)
- Machines can better isolate certain muscles. This is really the converse of the idea of stabilizers. By removing those smaller muscles from the equation, you’re able to, well, isolate the muscles you’re intending to train. As I explain below, this can be helpful when trying to address certain weaknesses.
- The strength curve of a certain machine might fit your body well. The idea of a strength curve refers to the relative difficulty of a movement throughout the range of motion. For example, on a squat, you’ll generally struggle coming out of the hole, but have an easy time locking out the weight. Some machines are designed to make a movement difficult throughout the entire range of motion, which can have benefits in terms of both strength and hypertrophy. However, that’s highly individual, and you’ll have to test a variety of machines to find which fits your body best. (Personally, I love the old-school Nautilus hamstring curl machine at my gym, because I really have to use my upper hamstrings and glutes to initiate the movement. I hate the Hammer incline bench, though, because my triceps limit me more than my chest in that particular pressing groove.)
When to Use Each One
So, let’s return to the original question: machines or free weights? By now, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear the answer is “it depends,” but let’s look at a couple of different examples to help illustrate the point.
For building muscle, go with free weights most of the time. While machine-based movements can absolutely induce just as much protein synthesis (i.e., muscle growth) as free weights, you’re getting more bang for your training buck with the latter. That’s because of all those smaller stabilizing muscles are getting worked, too, alongside the bigger groups like legs, back, and chest.
If you want big arms, machines are a good bet. When using free weights to perform typical isolation movements for the arms, it’s very easy to cheat. If you’re doing a barbell curl, for example, not only can you use your lower back to generate some momentum, but you also often end up getting the shoulders and even lats involved in the movement as well. Unfortunately, the weights you’re using on curls aren’t ever going to be heavy enough to help build a big back, so you’re really just cheating your arms out of the work they need to grow.
When bringing up weak points, use whatever feels right. As I explained above, weak points are challenging. Any tool that you can use to target those areas is the right tool, so never limit yourself to one or the other in this context.
Where do you fall on the machine versus free weights debate? Share in the comments below!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.