Free weights vs weight machines: Which is better?

weight machine

Strength training has become a ubiquitous part of many physical fitness buffs’ exercise routines. The health benefits lifting weights offer – building and maintaining muscle mass, increased calorie burn, improvements in mobility, coordination, and stamina – are well known and all good reasons for pumping iron.

But which form of weight is best providing the most advantages?  Is it free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls, and sandbags) or is it weight machines, typically found at gyms, fixed to an apparatus, and are dictated by the design of the equipment which in most cases are pin-loaded or plate-loaded machines?

First, there is no single piece of weight training equipment that is best for everyone. Both free weights and weight machines help increase strength and maintain muscle mass. The choice really depends on your personal preference, your physical fitness level and fitness goals, and which type of equipment you have access to the most.

But, let’s say you have access to both types – a variety of types of free weights and weight machines – what are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each:

Free weights – dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls, and sand bags

  • Advantages
  • Most are inexpensive and generally easier to store within your home.
  • Versatile – they allow you to perform a variety of exercises with just one weight.
  • They simulate real-life lifting situations and promote whole-body stabilization.
  • Generally safe when used with the proper technique.
  • Range of motion – concentric, eccentric and isometric muscle actions are involved when lifting free weights.
  • Freedom to move around, rather than locked into a specific range of motion or pattern.
  • Disadvantages
  • Possibility of a safety risk and injury if you lose control or use improper form when lifting.
  • Requires a greater level of exercise experience – less stable than fixed exercises.

Bottom line

Whichever type of weight lifting equipment you prefer – free weights or weight machines – it’s best to choose a weight training system that you enjoy and that fits your lifestyle. Keep in mind, if you prefer to use both types of weight equipment for strength training, that can be done also. Aim to do weight training exercises of all the major muscle groups at least two days a week. Performing one set of 12 to 15 repetitions is appropriate for most people.

No matter which type of resistance you ultimately choose, proper form and technique helping prevent injury is more important than the specific equipment.

Free weights vs weight machines: Which is better?
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Dr. David Samadi

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Dr. David Samadi