The Differences Between Free Weights and Machines

The Differences Between Free Weights and Machines

You just completed a hard workout today, finishing another full-body workout which you measured to burn 250 calories. You feel pretty good following this circuit strength workout right? 

But have you ever wondered if you are being as efficient as possible when working the machines at the gym? Do you find yourself looking over to see some exercisers performing the same exercise, but without the assistance of the machine? These are valid questions many experience in the gym. And, depending on your goals, machines or free weights may best suit your exercise needs. Read on to find out more!

Free Weights Basics

Free weights consist of any piece of equipment which does not assist in the movement or guidance of the range of motion of the exercise. In other words, using free weights is generally harder than using machines. 

Free weights are great for working the core and other postural muscles which are normally stabilized or assisted by a machine. Some machines allow more selection when it comes to your range of motion. For example, the Smith machine allows you to lower the glutes down as far or as high as you desire in a squat, all while assisting the anterior and posterior positioning of the barbell.

When comparing the Smith machine version of a squat with a free weight, unassisted version in a kind of “free weights vs machines battle”, there is quite a noticeable difference. First, you are in charge of moving the weights front and backward and you are on your own when lowering down into a squat.

If you are not familiar with a free weight back squat and have chronically used the Smith machine in the past, it is highly recommended to use light weight until you are familiar with the range of motion and how to properly control the movement.

Weight machines like the smith machine and the leg press can contribute to limiting you in this way because it forces you away from the habit of using your whole body weight to control the movement, meaning the strength training might not carry over well.

Machines Basics

In contrast to free weights, machine exercises can be a great way for beginners to learn a particular range of motion. The muscles in the body need to learn a movement and adapt before they can move to more strenuous forms of exercise, such as free weight exercises. 

Individuals recovering from an injury or older adults may especially benefit from using machine weights during strength training. The assisted movements from a machine provide more control and are able to better isolate particular muscle groups [1] when compared with free weights. Depending on your exercise goals and level of experience in strength training, it may be optimal to start your program using machines.

The Benefits of Using Free Weights vs. Machine Weights

One great element about exercise is there are numerous different ways to achieve the same result. A squat on a machine versus a squat using a barbell behind the shoulders both are performed to strengthen the hamstrings, quads, and glutes, but they are two different exercises. Both free weights and weight machines have their own advantages and disadvantages. Listed in the remaining part of this article are some benefits and weaknesses of using either piece of equipment to achieve your fitness results.

Benefits of Machines

  • Teach and allow full range of motion in an exercise [2]. Machines may assist with some of the movement, but they allow you to move through a full and complete range of motion.
  • Reduced risk of injury [3]. Machines are geared to prevent overstraining when working, which is why they are great for rehabbing and for preventing injury. The machine-style exercise is your safe haven for consistent exercise.
  • You can add more weight more easily. As you are isolating certain muscle groups, you can experience quicker gains in strength, but it’s important to note this may not translate to overall strength without assistance.
  • Weight machines are more joint friendly than free weights. You run less risk of moving in a slightly different way that could aggravate injured or sensitive joints.
  • Each muscle group can be isolated if you want to make strength or aesthetic gains in a particular part of your body. Weight machines force you to activate only one set of muscles at a time.

Weaknesses of Using Machines

  • Slower gains. Machines may give you gains in strength, but it will take slightly longer.
  • Cheating happens. The mind is very clever which is why, when performing an exercise that is intended to target only one muscle, the brain generally will find a loophole in the man-made machine to create more “assistance.” This slows muscular strength gains and could lead to quicker injury.
  • Both free weights and machines have the ability to train your muscle groups in one particular way or another. With weight machines, this can mean your strength gains don’t transfer well to other muscle groups or other types of movements.

Benefits of Free Weights

  • The strength gains are much quicker. Free weights add a different dimension. While you may be performing a deadlift, overhead squat, or bench press, you are working a number of other, stabilizer muscles in order to stabilize and control the weights.
  • You are generally more in the zone when using free weights. Machines tend to dull or slow individuals during a workout, which can cause boredom. Free weights on the other hand help prevent this by adding that element of excitement with each lift.
  • Free weights give you more freedom than resistance machines to change up your regular strength training routine. You can make small adjustments to compound lifts that work out muscles in a different way. This might not always be possible with weight machines.
  • Unlike weight machines, you can do the same barbell training in any gym on the planet. You usually find different weight machines in every gym you go to – so you might not always find the ones you are accustomed to using.

Weaknesses of Free Weights

  • Free weights are more likely to add to injury than machines. Due to the higher intensity nature involved with free weight lifting, it is more likely that you could experience injury or strain than from using a machine.
  • Free weights require more balance, which can make them unsuitable for beginners, older people, or those with mobility issues attempting strength training.
  • Without perfect form which has been taught to you by a professional, it can be easy to lift free weights incorrectly, leading to injury while weight training.
  • Free weight exercise usually involves more complex movements targeting more than one muscle group and is therefore harder to do with proper form when compared to weight machines.





About the Author

, Celebrity Personal Trainer and Fitness & Nutrition Expert headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ. He specializes in helping men and women achieve weight loss, muscle building, toning and other customized fitness & nutrition programs to create a Healthy Lifestyle. James offers private luxury personal training, 12-week custom workout plans, and personalized nutrition meal plans. Follow on Google+.

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