Free weights or machines? That is the question! Well largely this depends on what you are trying to achieve from using either option. The simplest answer is to use both! Both have their advantages and disadvantages for building muscles and for safety, there is no right or wrong answer as to which to use as option is widely divided. So ultimately it comes down to what you have access to and which article you choose to believe.
Here we have tried to give you an open minded view of both.
Free Weights (Dumbbells and Barbells)
- You can do a variety of exercises for all the muscle groups either together as one or in isolation.
- Free weights allow for self-selected movement based on your anatomy, unlike machines which confine the movement to a select path with no deviation. For example, if your shoulder joint is limited in range of movement, you can accommodate naturally to the limitation with a dumbbell, which can’t be done with a machine.
- Free weights help build coordination because it takes skill to move and control the dumbbells. If you're doing dumbbell presses for instance, you must control the motion so that the dumbbells move straight up and not outward (unless you are intending to vary the movement). Another example is if you're doing a squat, you must be able to steady and balance yourself.
- By using the free weight options it is widely believed that you recruit more muscles than just the group you're focused on as you need to create your own stability. Getting back to dumbbell presses, you not only use the pectorals, anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) and triceps, but you may need other shoulder and back muscles to coordinate and hold your body steady during the exercises. Likewise, if you're doing standing squats, you will naturally recruit muscles in your abdomen and back to steady your body as well as using glutes and legs. Small muscles are activated using this method as they are needed to help control the movement.
- There is a risk of injury from the equipment itself if not used properly; for example, weights may end up being too heavy and you may drop them on yourself or others as a result. When practicing free weights it is advised to do so with a partner to spot you.
- Decent free weights will cost some money, so you will need to buy your own quality set or join a gym that has a good selection available.
- Free weights do need some guidance – You’ll need to be shown how to use them by a professional. It’s not like using machines which have clear instructions and are normally self-explanatory.
- Machines are very easy to use. Some are self-explanatory and others are a little more complex but they always have clear instructions and require no skill, just the ability to read and change a pin/weight!
- Compared to their free weight counterparts these machines are relatively safe as they are on a fixed track. There is still the risk of injury by selecting too much weight, but otherwise there is a lot less risk of injuring yourself.
- There is no coordination required and a spotter is also not entirely necessary if you’re looking to work out alone.
- If you plan on exercising at home, machines can be expensive and take up a lot of room. This also means that there are often just one or two of each type at the gym, which means you will have to wait if someone else is currently using one.
- Each machine is ordinarily limited to working one single group of muscles therefore you need lots of machines to cover all the muscle groups. The only machines that target more than one are the cable pulley machines. They are extremely versatile but this requires instruction from a professional as they are not the easiest to use!
- If your body doesn't anatomically match the movement of the machine, you might injure a joint with repetitive use over time. For example, the biceps and triceps machines are limited in their range and can cause problems for the shoulder and elbow joints.
So there you go; both free weights and machines have their pros and cons - It’s all about works best for you. At the end of the day, any exercise is a good thing so feel free to start and find out which approach you find the most sustainable.