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Free Weights vs. Strength-training Equipment

Have you wondered which method of strength training is better, free weights or strength-training equipment? The truth is, each has its advantages and disadvantages.

The choice depends on your level of experience, your exercise goals and, to some extent, your personal preference. An understanding of these factors will help you decide if free weights or machines—or a combination of both—will help you reach your goals.

The Free-weight Advantage

  • Free weights incorporate the stabilizing muscles that enable you to perform the movements you choose to make and may be more effective in producing overall muscular strength and power gains.
  • Free-weight exercises tend to more closely match the movement patterns you’re likely to need for specific sports.
  • Free weights are more versatile; you can do a wide variety of exercises with a simple set of dumbbells. You can, for example, hold the weights with palms facing forward, facing your body, or facing the wall behind you. In doing so, you can do three different exercises that will work your muscles in different ways.
  • Free weights tend to be inexpensive, are portable and take up little space.

The Free-weight Disadvantage

  • You must learn to balance the weight while exerting force. This can be difficult—and potentially dangerous—if you are lifting weights overhead.
  • The isolation of specific muscles can be difficult. To target the muscle you want, you must use very precise technique.
  • Free weights can be swung for momentum rather than lifted slowly and steadily, which works the muscles more effectively and safely.
  • Training alone can lead to injury if you don’t use proper technique.

The Machine Advantage

  • Machines are generally safer and easier to use, an advantage for beginners learning a specific movement.
  • Some machines are more efficient than free weights at isolating a specific muscle or muscle group. This is important when you’re strengthening a specific body part or rehabilitating an injury.
  • Machines ensure correct movements for a lift, which helps prevent cheating when muscle fatigue sets in.
  • Machine workouts can take less time because you can move easily from machine to machine. Changing the resistance is easy; you just insert a pin or enter a code.

The Machine Disadvantage

  • Most machines involve moving a weight along a predetermined path, making it difficult to strengthen the stabilizer muscles.
  • Machines are much more limited, with most devices allowing only one exercise.
  • Most machines are geared to the average-sized person, so if you’re shorter or taller than average, you may find it difficult to use some machines. However, some companies have developed equipment that is scaled down to suit many smaller men and women.
  • Generally speaking, if you are beginning a strength-training program for the first time, or have been away from your program for months or even years, then it’s a good idea to use the resistance-training machines for the first 10 to 12 weeks of your program.
  • Doing so will give your body the time it requires to adjust without putting undue stress on your muscles and joints. Using machines may also be easier and less discouraging if you’re a novice, because free weights require some coordination to use.
  • Experienced exercisers may want to use free weights because of the additional training benefits they offer. That said, the combination of free weights and machines can add variety to your workout.
  • If you are a health club member, be sure to ask a fitness professional to show you how to properly use the free weights and machines. If you forget how, ask until you feel confident that you are using the proper technique to complete each exercise.
  • If you are exercising at home, be sure to purchase an exercise tape that outlines proper technique. Good technique is essential if you want to reach your strength-training goals while avoiding injury, regardless of which type of resistance you choose.

Additional Resources

About.com: www.sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/strengthening/a/aa050702a.htm
American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand—Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults: www.acsm-msse.org/pt/re/msse/positionstandards.htm

Free Weights vs. Machines

The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice weekly. Benefits include: increased muscle mass, more efficient metabolism, reduced risk of injury and greater bone and muscle strength. Are there advantages to training with machines rather than free weights? Read on to learn about the pros and cons of each.

Benefits of training with free weights

  • They provide a fuller range of motion. You are not locked into position as you are with machines
  • They provide an approximation of moves you normally use. For example, a bicep curl is much like the motion you use in picking up a grocery bag.
  • Free weights promote and encourage full body stabilization. Free weights can support functional fitness because lifting safely requires that you engage your core to maintain balance.
  • They are comparatively inexpensive and easy to use at home. You can buy a few free weights at a time to get started on your home strength training plan with minimal up-front investment.

Disadvantages – When it comes to weight training there is nothing more important than form. Poor form can make it difficult to effectively isolate the muscle you are targeting. In worst case scenarios, poor form can also lead to injuries. Perhaps the biggest con of using free weights is the learning curve. Pay close attention to form to minimize this disadvantage. Injuries related to lifting weights that are too heavy without the support of a machine or a spotter is another big con of free weights.

Benefits of training with machines

  • Machines provide stabilization which makes it easier to focus your training on large groups of muscles simultaneously without worries about maintaining balance.
  • There is no danger of falling weights, which can provide an added measure of safety for new users or heavier weights.
  • Step by step diagrams may make it easier for users to learn how to manage the equipment.

Disadvantages – because users may feel safe to lift heavier weight there is an increased risk of injury. Be sure to lift based on your current strength level and ability and build from there. Also, unlike free weights machine weights must be adjusted appropriately for your body size and strength. Do a test run using a lower weight to make adjustments. Additionally, focusing on larger muscle groups may cause injury owing to neglect of smaller muscles and tendons.

Ideally, your weight training plan will incorporate some combination of free and machine weight exercises. If that is not possible, you can develop a well-rounded program that imparts all the benefits of weight training with just free weights. No matter which program you choose you want what best fits your lifestyle and fitness goals so that you are more likely to stick with it.

When you walk into any health club or gym, you usually have two choices for the kind of weight training routine you can do: free weights or weight machines.

So which is best? When do you grab free weights like dumbbells, barbells and medicine balls, and when do you move to the weight machines, such as the chest press, pull-down or leg press? Below, you’ll learn the advantages of both free weights and weight machines.

Advantages to free weights:

  • You get stronger. Research has shown that free weights help you to get stronger much faster than weight machines.
  • You get more athletic. Free weights also build more balance and coordination than weight machines.
  • You’re more efficient with time. Most free weight exercises, such as dead lifts or squat-to-overhead-press recruit more muscle groups than weight machines, so you work more muscle and burn more calories in less time.
  • You can move through a greater range-of-motion. Many weight machines simply don’t “feel right” to your body, no matter how you adjust the seat or handles. With free weights, you have complete freedom of rotation so that something like an overhead shoulder press can feel much more natural and comfortable with free weights compared to weight machines.

Advantages to weight machines:

  • Less injury risk. Many free weights exercises require instruction and training to master proper form. In contrast, the joints and levers of weight machines can guide you through the proper range of motion.
  • Better for beginners. Not only are weight machines often located in an area far removed from the grunting of the big sweaty dumbbell lifters, but they’re also often staffed by personal trainers who can help you with an exercise, or have pictures to show you how to properly use the machine.
  • Good for isolating muscles. If you’re injured and you can’t use certain muscles, or you want to ensure that you’re just working one single muscle group, such as your chest, machines can be very effective for isolating just one area.
  • Allow easy weight changes. Free weights can require lots of stacking plates on barbells and taking dumbbells off shelves. But if you want to quickly change the weight you’re using, weight machines usually have a weight stack that makes things far more simple — as simple as merely adjusting a pin.

Your exercise program can certainly include both free weights and machines. Often, I’ll do a circuit on the weight machines at my gym, but include just a few free weights exercises to mix things up, burn more calories or replace certain machines that I don’t feel comfortable on.

Regardless of which weight training mode that you choose, both options will allow you to sculpt your body, burn calories and get stronger.

Free Weights Buying Guide

A mainstay in both home gyms and professional gyms, barbells have long been a great way to build muscle strength and mass for upper body workouts. Your main benefit is going to be heavy weight training, so keep in mind that barbell lifting is not necessarily for real beginners. Barbells typically focus on significantly more weight and are not recommended to use without a partner or spotter, especially when you’re using heavier weights. If you’re looking to do power grabs and snatches, you’ll need to build up your strength with a barbell over time.
Many people will compare barbell weights to dumbbell weights. Barbells are much better for leg workouts and those who have built up more strength. When searching for the best barbells, consider what type of bar you want (powerlifting, Olympic, hybrid), bar length, diameter and weight, yield strength (the total weight limit for the bar), tensile strength, center knurling, and finish. Note that in many cases, you’ll have to buy the bars and plates separately.
Weight plates are a necessary addition to your barbells. As we mentioned, you’ll often need to buy the weight plates separately from the barbells. Weight plates come in a large range of weight levels, and should be purchased in weight pairs (e.g., two 10 lbs. weights). Weights are placed on the barbell equally, so the same amount is on each side. When purchasing weight plates, consider easy handle holes, bar fitting (1 or 2 inches), and finish.
Shop Barbells and Weight Plates

5 Benefits of Dumbbell Training

Most health clubs and gyms offer rows of cardio equipment, aisles of weight-training machines, stacks of free weights and specific stretch areas to help members pursue their individual goals. When it comes to fitness equipment, there is no one “best” piece of equipment. Different types of equipment are purposefully designed to achieve specific fitness outcomes.

For those with goals related to strength training, there are countless options for increasing lean muscle or adding strength. Choices include the traditional weight machines, barbells or dumbbells, as well as a wide variety of specialized equipment such as kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags and even oversized tires. Some forms of resistance training equipment, such as barbells, are more effective for developing max strength, while weight-training machines can help increase muscle definition and lighter forms of resistance such as medicine balls and kettlebells can be useful for improving movement-specific power output. Dumbbells are often used for joint-isolation exercises such as biceps curls, chest flyes or shoulder raises. Using dumbbells for full-body, multiplanar movements, however, can provide a variety of different strength outcomes. It also offers many benefits for cardiorespiratory fitness and flexibility. To help you select the best equipment for your needs, here are five benefits of dumbbells:

  1. Dumbbells can provide the two types of overload that lead to muscle growth: mechanic and metabolic. Mechanic overload is the result of damaged caused by muscle contractions, which stimulates the repair process and leads to an increase in muscle size. Metabolic overload occurs when a muscle is worked to fatigue, which leads to the adaptation of muscle cells being able to store more glycogen which can cause muscles to increase in size. Heavy dumbbells can generate mechanical overload, while moderate-weight dumbbells combined with high reps (to fatigue) can produce metabolic overload.
  1. Dumbbell exercises can create both inter- and intramuscular coordination, leading to greater levels of muscle activation. Intermuscular coordination is the ability of a number of different muscles to work together to produce and stabilize joint motion. Intramuscular coordination is the amount of muscle motor units and their attached muscle fibers that are activated within a specific muscle. Using lighter dumbbells for compound, multijoint or multiplanar movement patterns improves coordination between different body segments. Using heavier dumbbells can increase the number of muscle fibers activated within a specific muscle.
  1. Dumbbells can benefit both the contractile element and elastic component of muscle tissue. The contractile element is the specific actin-myosin muscle proteins responsible for sliding across one another to create concentric shortening actions or control eccentric lengthening. The elastic component is the fascia and connective tissue that attaches each individual muscle fiber and groups of fibers to one another. The elastic component stores mechanic energy as it is lengthened, which is then released during a rapid muscle-shortening action. Traditional exercises with heavy dumbbells can increase the force production capacity of the contractile element, while multiplanar movement patterns with light dumbbells can enhance the resiliency and strength of the elastic component.
  1. Dumbbells can be used for a variety of exercises. Machines allow one motion in one specific movement pattern to place load on one muscle or muscle group. Due to their length, standard barbells are best used for compound movements in one specific plane of motion. Due to their size and the fact they can be held in each hand, dumbbells can be used to create a variety of different movement patterns to develop task- or movement-specific strength.
  1. Dumbbells allow the user to focus on one arm or leg at a time, which is one way to initiate strength gains by using a heavy overload. A single dumbbell can be used for exercises such as a one-arm overhead press or a split-leg goblet squat to create overload in one limb at a time.

If these benefits sound like what you’re looking for in your fitness program, but you’re not sure what exercises to do, here is a dumbbell workout to help you get started:

Dumbbell Goblet Reverse Crossover Lunge

  • Hold dumbbell vertically in front of your chest.
  • Sink back into the hips and step the left leg behind your right leg and sink into your right hip while keeping the spine tall.
  • To return to standing, press your right foot into the ground as you swing your left leg to the left.
  • Alternate sides for 8 to 10 reps; complete 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

Dumbbell Rotational Press

  • Stand and hold a dumbbell at each should wither palms facing each other.
  • Rotate to the right and fully extend your left arm. Pull your arm back down, rotate to the left and extend your right arm.
  • Alternate sides for 8 to 10 reps; complete 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

Dumbbell Alternating Bent-over Rows With Rotation

  • Hinge forward at the hips with knees slightly bent and the spine straight.
  • Hold dumbbells in your hands with the palms facing each other.
  • Pull your right hand toward your rib cage as you rotate to the right. Lower your hand and rotate to the other side.
  • Alternate sides for 8 to 10 reps; complete 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge With Forward Bend to Overhead Press

  • Step back with your right foot as you sink into your left hip.
  • Bend forward and reach for your left foot with both hands (if you sink into your hip first it is okay to allow your spine to round).
  • Press your left foot into the floor and swing your right leg forward to return to standing. As you reach standing, push both arms overhead into a press.
  • Alternate sides for 8 to 10 reps (4 to 5 each leg); complete 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

Pullover to Trunk Curl

  • Lie supine on ground with feet on the floor and knees bent and pointed toward the ceiling.
  • Hold both arms straight up with palms facing each other. Lower both arms overhead to the floor.
  • Pull your arms back over your chest. As your hands reach over your chest with extended arms, curl up your trunk.
  • Lower your torso to the floor and repeat.
  • Perform 10 to 12 reps; complete 2 to 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

Dumbell Hip Thrusters

  • Lie supine on the floor with feet flat on and the knees pointed up.
  • Rest two dumbbells on your hips with palms facing each other.
  • Push your feet into the floor and lift your hips up to the ceiling.
  • Pause at the top and then lower slowly. Aim for 1 to 2 seconds for the lift, 2 seconds for the hold, and 4 seconds to lower back down.
  • Perform 10 to 12 reps; complete 2 to 3 sets, resting rest 45 seconds between each set.

If you’re looking to get into better shape, then there’s a good chance you spend a lot of your workout time on cardiovascular exercise. After all, cardio is great for getting the heart rate up, burning fat, and increasing overall endurance. However, even if you’re not necessarily looking to “get ripped,” the fact remains that you should be incorporating at least some strength training into your workout routine. Doing so can help you achieve more defined and toned muscles while also aiding in your weight loss and overall fitness goals.

In fact, there are numerous health and fitness advantages that come along with regular strength training. Specifically, utilizing dumbbells as part of your strength training exercise can be a great way to progress toward your goals—whatever they may be.

Overall Benefits of Strength Training

In the simplest of terms, strength training refers to any exercise that involves using resistance to build the endurance and size of the body’s muscle tissue. There are numerous options when it comes to strength training, ranging from using dumbbells and weight machines to calisthenics and everything in between. So, even if your goal isn’t to achieve bulging muscles, how can you benefit from incorporating some form of strength training into your daily workouts?

Helps You Burn More Calories Overall

For starters, did you know that regular strength training, when combined with your typical cardiovascular exercise, can help you burn more calories as a whole? In fact, one study found that women who added strength training to their workouts at least three days per week were able to burn more calories during normal activity, thus helping them reach their fitness and weight goals more quickly. This happens because in addition to the calories you burn while you’re actually performing a strength training exercise, your body also continues to burn additional calories after your workout due to the fact that more calories are required to build muscle than to burn fat.

So, even if you’re not necessarily looking to lose anymore weight, strength training makes it easier to maintain your ideal weight while toning your muscles.

Aids in Disease Prevention

There is also some evidence to suggest that regular strength training can aid in preventing certain diseases. For example, women who have previously gone through menopause can reduce their risk of developing osteoporosis (which can lead to bone breakage and fracture) by following a strength training regimen as recommended by a doctor. Furthermore, strength training has been shown to help maintain blood glucose levels for the millions of people living with diabetes.

Increases Flexibility and Balance

In addition to helping you maintain a healthy weight and prevent certain diseases, regular strength training can also improve your overall flexibility, balance, and coordination in a way that cardiovascular exercise simple cannot. A lot of strength training exercises require you to naturally develop a better posture, which in turn helps with balance and coordination. Furthermore, the added range of motion afforded by many strength training exercises is ideal for increasing flexibility.

Protects the Bones and Muscles

Last but not least, strength training exercises can help to protect your bones and overall muscle mass. After all, did you know that after your body completed puberty, you slowly begin losing bone mass each year? This is a startling revelation for many, but the good news is that by engaging your muscles in exercise regularly (at least a few times per week), you can preserve your bone mass and protect your muscles in the process. It’s a win-win situation.

Advantages of Using Dumbbells

Though there are numerous options available to you when it comes to strength training, dumbbells are a great place to start—and for a number of reasons.

Versatility and Convenience

Perhaps the greatest advantage of working with dumbbells in your strength training routine is the simple convenience and versatility that comes with using them. This is especially true if you’re looking to set up a home gym; even a large set up dumbbells with varying weights doesn’t take up much space (certainly much less space than having several dedicated weight lifting machines lined up). You can easily set up a collection of dumbbells along a wall without needing very much room at all, and dumbbells themselves are relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to other fitness equipment out there.

And when it comes to versatility, there is really no better option than your standard dumbbell. With just one set of dumbbells, you can perform dozens or even hundreds of different strength-building exercises. The same simply cannot be said of other strength training equipment, such as your standard weight-lifting machine. These machines are great for targeting very specific muscles in the body, but they simply don’t come with the versatility that dumbbells do.

For example, with just two dumbbells, you can perform any number of the following exercises:

  • bicep curls
  • bench presses
  • tricep kickbacks
  • upright rows
  • shoulder presses

As you can see, this allows you to target a number of different muscle groups without the need for several different machines. And while dumbbells are idea for targeting muscles in the upper body, they can also be used while performing lunges and squats to add resistance for a better lower body workout.

Provides Two Types of Overload

In addition to being extremely versatile, dumbbell exercises also provide the two key types of muscle overload that are needed to tone and build muscle. These are known as mechanic and metabolic overload. Mechanic overload refers to the growth stimulated by contracting the muscles, whereas metabolic overload refers to a situation where the muscle is worked to the point of fatigue, causing it to increase in size when the body repairs the muscle. Some other forms of strength training provide only one type of overload, but dumbbell exercises ensure both, which leads to a better overall workout and better results for you down the road.

Independent Control

Another advantage of dumbbell training that’s worth mentioning is the fact that dumbbells allow you to work out one limb at a time, which is ideal for those who have injuries but don’t want to give up on exercise altogether. For example, if you have an injured right shoulder, dumbbells allow you to continue getting your daily strength training in on the other arm without worrying about further aggravating your other injury. The same simply cannot be said when working out with other strength training equipment, such as a weight machine or even barbells.

Tips for Dumbbell Training

If you’re thinking about incorporating dumbbell training into your daily workouts, there are some tips you’ll want to keep in mind to ensure the best results and to avoid the risk of injury.

Lift With Your Legs

When picking up dumbbells of any weight off the ground, always be careful to lift with your legs and not your back! This applies even if you’re only picking up a set of three-pound weights; the last thing you want is to throw out your back or otherwise injure yourself while simply picking up your dumbbells. Try to use a motion similar to a squat when picking up your dumbbells.

Watch Your Posture and Form

Another potential risk for injury when working out with dumbbells comes with improper posture and form. If you plan on incorporating dumbbell exercises into your at-home workout routine, take the time to watch some demonstration videos for various exercises so you can ensure you understand the proper posture and form required to perform the exercise. All it takes is one mistakes in terms of your posture to seriously injure yourself; if you have a gym membership, consider asking for a quick tutorial on how to perform some of the most common dumbbell exercises with proper form. When working out with dumbbells in a home gym, consider doing so in front of a full-length mirror so you can check your posture as you lift.

Know Your Limits

Finally, understand that more weight isn’t always better. Ideally, you should be starting with smaller weights and very gradually working your way up to heavier ones. While it’s great to challenge yourself, do know your limits and don’t push yourself too hard. Trying to lift weights that are too heavy for your muscles is only going to lead to injury. The mantra “no pain no gain” only partially applies to strength training. Yes, you need to push yourself in order to increase your strength, but there’s a fine line between pushing yourself and punishing yourself to the point of injury. When in doubt, stick with a lighter set of dumbbells until you’re 100% confident moving up to the next weight level.

Overall, strength training (and more specifically, dumbbell training) can be an excellent way to tone your muscles, get into better shape, and improve your health in the process. For more resources related to achieving your health and fitness goals or to shop for quality dumbbells and other equipment, be sure to check out Gtech Fitness today.

14th Mar 2016 Scott Gutschke

When I’m wandering around in the gym post-cardio, trying to figure out how I’m going to go about strength training, I tend to alternate between hitting up the weights machines and working with the free weights. I’m going to tell you the honest truth: I choose between them based on my mood (or TBH whichever area of the gym is the emptiest at the time).

A lot of people I know actually shy away from the weights machines though, because they can be intimidating and not intuitive to use. Every time I sit down on one, I personally have to check out the illustrated instructions to find out what position I should be in and how it functions. Hence why I decided to ask trainers how to properly navigate these machines, and when to actually choose them over dumbbells based on your fitness goals.

The main difference? “The machines typically take your body through the range of motion—from the starting point through to the end point, a machine will take you through the same line of motion with each and every repetition,” says Phil Timmons, program manager at Blink Fitness. But there’s a lot more that differs between those machines and your regular dumbbells.

When to use weights machines

First of all, know that while the two weight-lifting options do essentially the same thing, there are actually noticeable differences when it comes to how your body maneuvers. “While strength training with machines and with free weights both have their benefits, there are a few major differences to note before deciding which one to use,” says Vince Sant, lead trainer and co-founder of fitness platform V Shred.

The biggest one to note? How many muscles you’re actually using. “When it comes to machines, the biggest difference is the lack of other muscles used,” he explains. “This isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. Let’s say after a round of squats, your legs and all those stabilizer muscles you used are a bit fatigued. Now you can go do some hamstring curls without having to use those other muscles again.” Another example would be like if you’re at the gym even though you’re super sore in your upper body. You can simply use a weights machine to knock out some bicep curls without having to use the rest of your upper body, because the weights machine targets only a select few muscles. It definitely comes in handy.

Another perk of the weights machines is that you’re better able to lift more weight—like, significantly more than you could with dumbbells. “One of the main upsides is that the machines are much easier to learn, and you are able to lift heavier weights due to a fixed range of motion which limits usage of other muscle groups,” says Sant. “Think of it as a more isolated exercise variation than a free weight.” Christi Marraccini, founding trainer and creator of Go on Neou App, adds that you’re getting more support because of the machine itself: “It’s much easier to target the muscle groups that you want to work using machines. You are able to move more weight since some of the weight is being supported by the machine and not your body,” she tells me.

“You are able to lift heavier weights due to a fixed range of motion which limits usage of other muscle groups.” —Vince Sant

Then there’s the injury factor—according to Sant, you’re more likely to hurt yourself or tear something when using free weights versus machines. “Machines have less risk of injury because you’re not freely moving a weight around, and you can give your aching body parts a rest,” he says. You just, of course, want to make sure you’re reading those instructions if you’re new to the machine so that you’re doing the exercise correctly. On a related note, machines are also the right way to go if you’re recovering from an injury. “Machines are great for people that are injured or need certain modifications,” says Marraccini. This is due to the isolation of muscles being worked, and the fact that they ensure you have proper form (unlike in free weights).

If you’re new to weight training, machines are also an ideal way to work your muscles. “If you’re new to a movement, a machine can be a great start and help in learning proper mechanics and where you should feel the exercise working,” says Timmons.

So opt for using the machines for these main reasons: to target a specific muscle more, learn the mechanics of weight lifting easier, and to use as an accessory for bigger lifts, according to Sant. “Just make sure to use enough weight to overload the muscle you’re trying to target. Because you’re able to handle more weight on machines than with free weights, you don’t want to get into the mindset of using the same weight for a machine chest press as you would use with dumbbells,” says Sant. “You want to go heavier to stimulate your chest muscles enough for growth.”

Or, you know, you can just use them sporadically as part of your fitness regimen. “I’d use them as an accessory to any training you’re doing,” says Marraccini. “They’re a great addition and a great complement to any workout as well as a great way to change up your routine.” Bonus points for not needing anyone to spot you during your lifts.

When to use free weights

Working out with dumbbells is called ‘free weights’ for a reason: “You’re going to have more of a free range of motion due to being able to move the weights in any direction you please,” Sant explains. Hence why you can add moves like squats or lunges to your bicep curls or shoulder presses—you are literally free to do whatever you want with your body as you’re lifting weight…which leads to another dumbbell perk. “Using free weights allows you to work various muscle groups, depending on the exercise as well as strengthening stabilizer muscles,” says Sant. “This also helps strengthen your body overall, even if you don’t realize it, and improve coordination.”

Free weights are also key for applying strength to, well, IRL situations. “When you push something in real life, you typically won’t have your back up against an immovable object to help you,” says Timmons. According to him, it’s really all about form, technique, mobility, and stability. “Ground-based resistance training with free weights should be the goal for everyone, and should be part of everyone’s routine when they are ready to take them on with proper form,” he says, though there’s a place in everyone’s routine for either machines or free weights.

With great freedom comes great responsibility, though—and, in the case of free weights, that applies to your injury risk. “One thing to look out for with free weights is a higher risk of injury due to having to control your own form,” says Sant. So stay conscious of your form when working out sans machine.

Go with the dumbbells if you’re looking to “work more overall muscle and to improve coordination,” says Sant. It can also be more convenient compared to waiting for someone else to get off of a machine. So, ya know: Choose wisely.

On a related note, here’s when to use bodyweight vs. actual weights in your workout. And *this* is what it really means when you’re not sore after a workout (hint: don’t be discouraged).

Are Free Weights or Machines Better for Building Muscle?

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Key Takeaways

  1. Free weight exercises activate more muscle mass than machine exercises, which makes them better for building muscle in the long-run.
  2. Machines exercises can be helpful for training lagging muscle groups.
  3. To get the best results, you’ll want to do most of your training with free weights, and use machines to help grow stubborn muscles.

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.

Then, there’s the minority of people who stick to the bench, squat rack, and dumbbells.

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.

Some say that machines are better at training individual muscle groups, like the pecs, biceps, and triceps. They also say that machines are safer than free weights.

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.

What’s the Difference Between Machines and Free Weights?

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, , 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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Why Machines Aren’t Usually As Good as Free Weights

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.

Free weights create more muscle activation, which means that they also usually do a better job of stimulating muscle growth.

For example, the barbell back squat produces 43% more total muscle activation than the Smith machine squat.

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.

The barbell squat, one of the most common free weight exercises for training legs, involves your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, , and even your abs.

On the other hand, a machine leg exercise like the leg extension does a good job of training your quads, and not much else.

In sum, you’ll get more out of your time in the gym by focusing on heavy, compound, free weight exercises like the back squat, deadlift, military press, and bench press.

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.

Good Reasons to Use Machines

Despite their drawbacks, it’s still wise to include a few machine exercises in your workout routine.

Some muscle groups are hard to train with free weights alone, with calves being one of the worst offenders.

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.

Or, maybe your chest is tired, but you want to work on your arms some more. In that case, you could knock out some biceps curls and triceps extensions after benching.

Here are some other examples of how you could use machines to train lagging muscle groups:

  • After squats, use the leg press and leg extension machine to target your quads.
  • After bench, use the chest press machine and pec deck to target your chest.
  • After deadlifts, use the lat pulldown machine and preacher curl machine to target your back and biceps.

How Much Time Should You Spend on Machines?

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.

The Best Machine Exercises for Building Muscle

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:

Chest

Chest Press Machine

Cable Chest Press

Chest Fly Machine

Pec Deck Machine

Back

Machine Row

T-bar Row

Lat Pull-down

Shoulders

Seated Press Machine

Cable Side Raise

Lateral Raise Machine

Biceps

Preacher Curl Machine

Single-Arm Cable Curl

Cable Curl with a Straight Bar

Cable Curl with Rope Attachment

Triceps

Dip Machine

Triceps Extensions with Rope Attachment

Triceps Extensions with Straight Bar

Quads

Smith Machine Squat

Smith Machine Hack Squat

Leg Press

Leg Extension Machine

Hamstrings

Lying hamstring curls

Seated Hamstring curls

Calves

Standing Calf Raise Machine

Seated Calf Raise Machine

Glutes

Smith Machine Squats

Butt Blaster Machine

The Bottom Line on Free Weights Versus Machines

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.

Want More Workouts?

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Shoulder Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Shoulders in Just 30 Days

The Ultimate Shoulder Workout

4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why)

Arm Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Biceps in Just 30 Days

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Triceps in Just 30 Days

The Ultimate Arms Workout

Back Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Back in Just 30 Days

The Ultimate Back Workout

Leg Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Legs in Just 30 Days

This Is The Last Lower Body Workout You’ll Ever Need

The Ultimate Legs Workout

Butt Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Rounder Butt in Just 30 Days

The Best Butt Exercises for Building Head-Turning Glutes

What’s your take on free weights versus machines? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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Machines Or Free Weights: Structure Vs. Function!

One of the most heated debates in the world of fitness today is the battle of free-weights (low-tech apparatus) versus machines (high-tech apparatus). Each side has their arguments with both sides having some merit to their claims.

This article will try to separate some of the fact from the fiction of each of these types of training tools. At the end of this article it will make more sense as to why one would choose a free-weight or a machine and for what purpose.

Before we dive into the major differences between free weights and machines let us first agree on what we are calling a free-weight or a machine.

A free-weight can be classified as any object or device that can be moved freely in three-dimensional space. Some of the more common free-weights found in a gym would be:

  • Dumbells
  • Barbells
  • High/Low or adjustable pulley system
  • Lat pull-down and low-row device
  • Medicine Balls(all types including kettle bells)
  • Ankle weights
  • The human body the ultimate free-weight of all!
  • In all reality, any object that is free to move in three-dimensional space that is not fixed to any specific set of axis (as in a smith machine) can be considered a free weight. An exercise machine on the other hand, is not allowed to move in three-dimensional space and is usually only capable of moving in two dimensions.

    Any exercise machine in a gym such as a pec-dec or a smith machine is a perfect example of what we are calling high-tech training apparatus.

    So which is best, free-weights or machines? I would assume that most of you reading this article are frequent users of free-weights and cable systems.

    However, I also know that many bodybuilders choose machine training for isolating and really targeting a specific muscle or group of muscles. So to answer the question on the superiority of free weights versus machines it is first important to know what one’s goals are.

    Structural Vs. Functional Goals

    In studying human physiology we learn that structure and function are intimately related. In strength training jargon this means that if you want to change your structure (i.e. build mass) you must change the function of that structure (i.e. improve 8-12RM) which is ultimately a neuromuscular phenomenon.

    So if ones wishes to gain mass (hypertrophy), one must change the function on the nervous system’s ability to use that muscle (i.e. get stronger) so that the structure (soft-tissues) can adapt and grow.

    The average reader on a web site called Bodybuilding.com is probably most interested in structural goals like building mass and losing body fat than say a sprinter, who is mainly concerned with improving a specific function (running 100m dash in 10 seconds) and thus prioritizes functional goals over structural ones.

    This does not mean that sprinters omit structural phases in their training. It simply states that the main goal for a sprinter is not to get as big as a house but rather to improve a specific skill (run fast) which requires that the function of the neuromuscular system improve along with the structure.

    Free-weight

    Getting back to our discussion of free-weight versus machines, it helpful to know the main benefits of each in relation to whether we have primarily structural or functional goals. Free weights, with their extreme versatility are the ultimate tool for both structural and functional goals.

    For instance if a bodybuilder is bench pressing and wishes to put on mass, a choice of reps in the 8-15 range would make a good choice. If one is also a football player who desires to put on some mass the bench press again is an excellent choice because it develops more real-life strength.

    What is often called functional strength due to the need to stabilize and control the barbell in all three planes of motion, just like the athlete will need to do on the playing field.

    However if the football player decides to use all high-tech Hammer strength machines for his chest work he may build some impressive pecs but will be lacking in the function department due to the lack of three-dimensional stability required in those exercises. Thus, his structure would have improved but without a corresponding increase in his function.

    Now lets look at a scenario where a bodybuilder, who’s chest development has been stuck for some time. His workouts usually consist of free-weight only with some standing cable fly’s thrown in to finish off his chest workout.

    If this person were to add some machine work at the end of his free-weight workout he may be able to add some more volume and thus trigger some new growth. After his traditional free-weight workout, his shoulder stabilizers may be so fatigued that his chest is unable to get more work during his final sets.

    However, by finishing off with some machine training he may be able to exhaust and stimulate more pectoral muscle fibers because the machine is taking some of the load off his rotator cuff. This is a scientific application for the use of machines.

    For the vast majority of exercises and goals, whether structural or functional, free-weights usually offer the most variety as well as total body stimulation because many muscles other than the prime movers (muscles responsible for moving the load) are stimulated as stabilizers.

    Machines

    Machines on the other hand, with their ability to isolate better, can be useful for structural or bodybuilding purposes when they are carefully planned in the workout which is usually to place them after all free-weight exercises. There is much more to the story here.

    Hopefully, this article has shed a little light on the differences between free-weights and machines and specifically the scientific use of each in regards to your training goals.

6 Best Free Weight Exercises For Upper Body Strength

Using free weights is one of the best ways to build strength as well as improve your functional fitness levels.

They’re incredibly versatile and allow you to target specific areas as well as address imbalances.

However, knowing how to use them is another thing entirely. But if you’re looking to get the most out of your training, then they’re the only way to go.

To help you get started, we’ll go through the basics of free weight training as well as some fantastic upper body exercises. And all you need is a weight bench and a pair of dumbbells.

What is free weight training?

The term ‘free weights’ refers to any weights that aren’t machines. So, usually a pair of dumbbells, as these are one of the most versatile types of free weight.

But they’re basically anything where your movement isn’t guided. This can make them more difficult to use – especially compared to the resistance machines at the gym. However, you can get much more out of them in the long run.

Free weights vs machines

There are lots of benefits to using free weights:

  • Full extension – free weights don’t restrict your movements so each exercise can be performed with full muscle extension. This helps to optimise your workouts and improve the quality of your exercises.
  • Natural movements – we’re all built differently and the way we move is also different. Machines inevitably influence the way we move. However, free weights allow you to move naturally, which is best for building muscle and avoiding injury.
  • Avoid imbalances – free weights not only help you move each side of your body independently, but they also help to highlight any weaknesses. So, as you train, you can be much more focused and avoid asymmetries.
  • Work your stabilising muscles – free weights are more demanding, giving you the opportunity to work your stabilising muscles at the same time.
  • Versatile – free weights and dumbbells are really versatile. You can use them to target specific areas or several areas the same time. This makes for much more efficient workout.
  • Train at home – you don’t need much room to get a solid workout in at home. Get an adjustable weight bench and a set of hex dumbbells and you’re all set.
  • Perfect for upper body workouts – free weights are especially good for upper body exercises as you can use them to target your shoulders, arms, back and chest. You can also vary the weight load more easily, depending on the exercise.
  • Can also be used for lower body – dumbbells are great for doing exercises such as walking lunges, goblet squats, dumbbell hamstring curls and dumbbell deadlifts.

Machines are great for beginners as they help you to get a feel for what sort of movements you need to be doing to work each muscle set. However, anyone looking to build some serious muscle mass will want to use free weights.

What are the best free weight exercises?

To help you get started, we’ve put together the best free weight exercises for upper body strength.

1) Dumbbell hammer curl

How to do them: hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your hips. While maintaining a slight bend in your elbow, bring your arms up and past 90-degrees. Your wrists should be neutral and your thumbs pointing upwards. Release back down to start again.

What muscles they target: biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis

2) Concentration curl

How to do them: sit on the side of a weight bench with your legs at a 45-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Push your right upper arm into your right thigh. Curl the dumbbell up with your forearm at a 90-degree angle to your leg. Curl the weight up to your chest and then release back down until your arm is almost straight. Repeat on the other side.

What muscles they target: biceps, brachialis

3) Dumbbell shoulder press

How to do them: first, put the weight bench in an upright position. Then sit back with a dumbbell in each hand. Bring your arms up ready to push the weights above your head. The dumbbells should be at around ear height with your arms at a 90-degree angle to your body. Push the weights up together until they meet above your head. Then bring them back down. Remember to keep your back straight and your hips pushed back into the bench.

What muscles they target: delts, traps, triceps

4) Incline dumbbell press

How to do them: place your weight bench at a 45-degree angle. You can raise the seat rest up as well to help you stay in position while you train. With a dumbbell in each hand, sit right back and arch your back. Keep your feet pressed into the floor. Bring your hands into a bench press position. Your elbows should be at a 45-degree angle to your body and the weights around chest height. Push the dumbbells up and towards each other so that they meet above your eyeline. Bring them back down ready to start again.

What muscles they target: pecs, delts, triceps

5) Lying dumbbell tricep extensions

How to do them: set the weight bench in a flat position and lie back with your feet firmly on the ground. For ease of concentration, do one arm at a time. Holding the dumbbell, stretch your arm back over your head. You can place the other hand on your hip or on the bench down by your side. Keeping your elbow close to your ear, push the weight up so that it meets your eyeline. Then reverse it back down so that it’s behind your head and your tricep is extended. Your hand should be in a neutral position with your thumb pointing downwards. Repeat on the other side.

What muscles they target: triceps, delts

6) Rear dumbbell fly

How to do them: stand with a slight bend in your knees. Elevate your chest and then come down so that your upper body is almost parallel with the floor. Maintain a straight spine. With a dumbbell in each hand, bring your hands down so that they are directly below your shoulders. Make sure your neck is in line with your spine so that your eyes are looking down at the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Then, with your palms facing towards each other, lift your arms up as high as they will go. Bring them back down to repeat.

What muscles they target: traps, delts, rhomboids

Can you build muscle with only dumbbells?

Building muscle and strength both require specific styles of training. However, you can of course build muscle with dumbbells, as long as you are lifting enough for your current strength and ability.

In short, to build muscle you need to be failing at around 8-12 reps. Fewer reps than this – around 1-6 reps – will focus your strength. And more reps than this – 15-30 reps – will focus your endurance.

And all of these rely on failing at the top end of those rep counts. Stopping at 12 reps and failing at 12 reps are two different things.

Read our blog on the 12 reasons you’re not getting stronger for a more in-depth explanation of the different training styles.

How much weight should a beginner lift?

If you are just starting out, then using a pair of light dumbbells is best so that you can get used to the movements. Once you have a feel for what you should be doing, you can build from there.

Rather than just seeing how much you can pick up, you should let the reps dictate your weight load. If your goal is strength, you should be able to use your chosen weight for up to six reps. If your goal is to build muscle, you should be able to use your chosen weight for up to 12 reps.

And as mentioned above, you should be failing at these points. This is when you can’t physically do any more reps.

If you can’t reach your chosen amount of reps, or you can easily do more, adjust the weight load accordingly.

And remember, you will progress a lot at the beginning of your training. So, make sure that you are always pushing your weight loads up.

And if you’re training at home, find out our top 7 tricep exercises for building strength and muscle mass here.

Want to see more? Find us on Instagram @MirafitOfficial.

8 Benefits of Doing Free Weights Exercises

Mikolette/Getty Images

If your strength workout is limited to resistance machines, it’s time to get up and grab some weights. Not only are they more convenient and cost-effective if you’re working out at home, but using free weights vs. machines actually offers more performance benefits, too. According to trainers and science, incorporating them into your workout routine is the surest way to strengthen your muscles, burn calories, and become better at pretty much everything you do. Win-win.

Here, all the benefits of using free weights vs. machines. (Next up, read about the benefits of lifting weights in general.)

1. They’re functional.

The best exercises are the ones that improve your performance outside of the gym—whether that means running a half-marathon, moving furniture around your living room, or climbing onto your kitchen counters because your home was designed for tall people, says strength coach and personal trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S. Those exercises are what trainers call “functional,” and by and large, they require free weights.

“Free weights allow your body to move throughout all three planes of motion, so that you move throughout space like you would in normal life,” he says. “Machines usually having you sitting down and lifting a weighted load while restricted to a single plane of motion. However, in life outside of the gym, you’re rarely if ever pushing, pulling, or lifting while seated. (This is the idea behind functional fitness.) Even a basic free-weight exercise, such as a standing dumbbell biceps curl, carries over into daily activities like lifting up grocery bags or shopping bags. Now, that’s a basic exercise.”

2. They’re super-efficient.

Since free weights, unlike machines, aren’t fixed to a certain path, that means you don’t just have to push or pull in one direction. You also have to keep the weights—and yourself—from wobbling. That’s a good thing for all of your muscles, says Donavanik. “Because your body has to work to support the weight and control the movement, your larger muscles, stabilizer muscles, and core all work together to control your movements.” So with every rep, you’re strengthening way more than one muscle. (Related: Why You Need to Have Compound Exercises In Your Gym Routine)

3. They improve your balance.

Free weights don’t just work multiple muscles at once. They make them work together, which is critical for balance and coordination, Donavanik says. For instance, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared free weights vs. machines and found that individuals who performed free-weight exercises improved their balance almost twice as much as those who performed similar exercises on resistance-training machines. Finally, you won’t fall over in yoga class.

4. They torch serious calories.

The more muscle you work during a given exercise, the more calories you’re going to burn with every rep, Donavanik says. And while any free-weight exercise is going to tax your smaller stabilizers more than resistance-machine exercises, free weights also allow you to perform compound movements that work your entire body at once, he says. Think about a squat to overhead press: By hitting your legs, core, arms, and shoulders, the move sends your calorie burn through the roof. (Related: How to Boost Your Metabolism Using Just a Pair of Dumbbells)

5. They make you so much stronger.

Yes, both count as resistance training, but your body responds pretty differently to free weights vs. machines. When University of Saskatchewan researchers hooked electrodes to exercisers, they found that those who performed free-weight squats activated their leg and core muscle 43 percent more than those who performed Smith machine squats. Plus, free-weight exercises trigger a greater hormonal response than do similar exercises performed on resistance machines, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. And that hormonal response dictates how your muscles rebuild and grow after your training session. (Related: The Hardest Workout You Can Do with Just One Dumbbell)

6. They fit in your closet.

Can you afford a half dozen resistance machines? Or fit them in your house? Probably not. But a few sets of dumbbells? That’s totally doable. To save serious cash and space, consider buying a pair of adjustable weights. A set can cost anywhere from 50 bucks to a few hundred dollars, and they work as up to 15 dumbbells in one. Some adjust from five pounds each all the way to 50 pounds each, so one pair is all you need. (Not sure how to start building your own at-home gym? See here: 11 Amazon Buys to Build a DIY Home Gym for Under $250)

7. They reduce your risk of injury.

The best way to prevent injury is to shore up your muscle imbalances. Lifting free weights is a great way to do just that. Because free weights are constantly challenging your balance, they force you to work and strengthen your small stabilizing muscles, which play a big role in supporting your body and keeping your joints in their proper place, Donavanik says. Plus, since free weights load each side of your body separately, they reduce strength differences between your two biceps, triceps, hamstrings, whatever. “If you are performing a dumbbell chest press, you’ll immediately know if one arm is weaker than the other,” he says. Not to mention, your stronger arm won’t be able to compensate like it could with a chest press machine—which only exacerbates strength differences. (Try these 7 Dumbbell Strength Training Moves That Fix Your Muscle Imbalances to get started.)

8. There are no limits.

Free weights are arguably the most versatile workout tool ever. All you need are the weights and a few square feet of empty space, and you can perform hundreds, if not thousands, of exercises to strengthen every muscle in your body.

  • By K. Aleisha Fetters

What’s the difference between free weights and resistance machines?

If you’re new to the gym then it’s perfectly understandable that you’ve got quite a few questions. The free weights area is full of big, grunting men which can be intimidating while the machines are being hogged by Lycra-clad women doing strange leg movements. But which is best for you? We take a look.

There is a significant difference between free weights and resistance machines, both in how they work and the results they will give you. The free weights are the barbells and dumbbells in the gym, while the machines are any resistance-based workout machines such as the leg press, assisted chin up machine, or lat pull down.

There are two types of resistance machine: plate loaded and pin loaded. The plate loaded machines work by the user adding weighted plates to a stack in order to increase the resistance. This can be tricky if it’s a busy gym as you may struggle to find the plates that you want and the weight cannot be changed easily. Pin loaded machines have a stack of weights already part of the machine and the user changes the resistance by simply moving a pin up or down. This is better for working on pyramid sets or drop sets when you need to change the weight quickly, and means you don’t need to leave the machine in order to change the weight resistance.

The primary difference between free weights and machines is that machines are fixed in place and only move in certain directions whereas free weights can be moved in any way the user chooses. Free weights force you to use more stabiliser muscles in order to control the weight, whereas resistance machines can help you with the move by keeping you in place.

Do free weights or machines build muscle faster?

In general, free weights activate more muscles than machines and therefore are better for building muscle in the long-run. However, towards the end of your session when your muscles are tired and your form is starting to suffer, machines are safer and can help you to continue training safely. Not only this, machines can help you to train weaker muscles more safely and help them to get as strong as your dominant areas. For example, a squat is a free weight exercise. However, if you are quad-dominant, your hamstrings will start to lag behind. Therefore, you could use the hamstring curl machine after doing your squat sets in order to target your hamstrings separately.

The best way to build muscle is to use free weights for most of your workout and then use the machines for accessory exercises. As an example, on leg day you will want to focus most of your efforts on the squat. You will then want to do lunges with a barbell or dumbbells. Then, you could target weaker areas with the hamstring curl machine or work on your weaker leg by doing single leg exercises on the leg press.

Are machines safer than free weights?

In a lot of ways, yes machines are safer than free weights. Dumbbells and barbells can easily be dropped and if it happens to drop on your hand, your foot, or head, there could be serious injuries that ensue as a result. If you use a resistance machine exactly as prescribed, you should not get injured by the mechanics, although you could still pull a muscle or sustain a sports injury due to not warming up properly or lifting a weight that’s too heavy for you.

Free weights require a lot more control than machines and if you try to lift a free weight that’s too heavy – especially if it’s going above your head – this can be pretty dangerous. If you’re new to lifting weights, you should always have a member of the gym staff show you how to do the exercise properly and with good form. Nearly all gyms will offer an induction to new members which consists of a trainer or fitness instructor taking you around the gym and showing you how all the machines work and which muscle groups they are used for.

If you do want to lift a weight that you haven’t lifted before or want to go heavy, you should employ the help of a spotter. A spotter is someone who stands over you as you lift the weight and follows your movement. They are there to catch the weight if you start to drop it and to help you finish the move if you cannot. For example, a spotter on the bench press will stand behind the bench and hover their hands under the bar. If the person lifting the weight starts to drop it on their chest, the spotter can lift it back to safety. A bad spotter is someone who assists with the lift while a good spotter is someone who doesn’t touch the weight unless absolutely necessary. The spotter needs to be strong enough to rescue you if and when needed and they need to pay full attention while the lift is in progress as your safety is in their hands.

For the squat, the spotter stands behind the person doing the squat and squats with them. They hold their hands under the squatter’s armpits to assist them to the top of the movement if needed. A good spotter should not touch the athlete unless absolutely necessary.

Free weights vs machines: pros and cons

Both free weights and resistance machines have their place in a well structure workout programme. Some are better than others and some will suit your needs more than others. Here are the pros and cons of free weights vs resistance machines.

Free Weights Resistance Machines
Pro – They will give you a well rounded workout and work multiple muscles at a time, including stabiliser muscles Pro – They are safer than free weights
Con – You may need a spotter which means you need to find someone willing to help you Con – They do not build muscle as fast

Machine vs free weights

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