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Free Weights vs Machines: Which Rules Supreme?

Free Weights vs Machines: Which Rules Supreme?

Free Weights vs Machines

Free weights vs machines is a question that I do seem to get asked a lot about which I like better.  I will discuss the pluses and minuses of both free weights vs machines before I give my personal evaluation on which is better.  I know that some of you may not believe this, but there was a time that I was a full fledged gym rat.  I could spend hours in the gym pumping iron and still have the energy to go for a long road bike ride or play ice hockey later that night.  Now that I have turned from a cyclist into an ultra runner I just don’t seem to have the extra time to go to the gym like I used to.  And, although I do not have the cut physic that I once used to; I still get asked about what type of weight training that I do and about free weights vs machines.  Many people are surprised to find out that I have not lifted weights in more than five years, but I am always happy to answer their questions about various exercises and how to do them properly.

Free Weights vs Machines: Weight Training – A Basic Overview

Weight training is a common type of strength training for developing the strength and size of skeletal muscles. It uses the force of gravity (in the form of weighted bars, dumbbells or weight stacks) to oppose the force generated by muscle through concentric or eccentric contraction. Weight training uses a variety of specialized equipment (physical weights or machines) to target specific muscle groups and types of movement.

Strength training is an inclusive term that describes all exercises devoted toward increasing physical strength. Weight Training is a method to increase your strength.  Strength is defined as the ability of a person to exert force on physical objects using muscles.  For a detailed article about the muscles of the human body see The Muscular System.

Types of Weight Lifting (Resistance) Options

Out of all the weight lifting options there are when you walk into a gym they can all be categorized into four basic types of equipment: 1) constant resistance devices, 2) variable resistance devices, 3) accommodating resistance devices, and 4) static resistance devices.  Let’s take a brief look at each.

Constant Resistance

Constant Resistance Machine with Round Cams (Lat Pull-Down)

In constant resistance the amount weight does not increase or decrease throughout the entire motion of the exercise.  If you pick up a 10 pound dumbbell it will always weighs 10 pounds.  Another example is that if you are using a machine that has a round pulley rather than an elliptical pulley, then it is a constant resistance machine.


It is believed that because the movements of contestant resistance is more natural to the musculoskeletal system that it is better and more effective for you in the long run.


Because leverage in a joint changes throughout the range of motion of an exercise, a constant resistance device does not account for this change.  There can be spots during the range of motion of an exercise that gain improved leverage where you do not have to work as hard.  To gain strength and build bigger muscles you need to stress them, and this easier range of motion does not allow for maximum benefits.

Variable Resistance

Elliptical Cam in a Variable Resistance Machine

If you are using a machine that has a cable or strap that is attached or goes over an elliptical pulley or a pulley with the hole off center; then you are using a variable resistance machine.  With these types of pulleys it makes it possible for the amount of weight to change through the range of motion of the exercise you are performing.  The amount can either increase or decrease throughout the exercise.


In exercising and training there is a principle called the Overload Principle.  This principle states that fitness improves only when workloads are greater than those normally encountered. You must exercise against a resistance greater then “normally” encountered. The workload can be quantified in terms of training intensity (rate of doing work) or training volume (the total amount of work done). If you continue to use the same amount of resistance and the same amount of reps for every workout there will be no improvement beyond the point that you already have achieved.  The adage of “No pain, no gain” is not just lip service; it’s the truth.  The principle applies to all aspects of fitness including strength, speed, and endurance of muscle contractions. It also applies to improvements in flexibility and the strength of bones, joints, and ligaments.


When you first experience a variable resistance machine you may find the motion of the exercise to be unnatural.  This type of movement actually confuses the brain and it has a hard time interpreting the movement.

With variable resistance machines the movement patterns are dictated for you and the machine acts as your stabilizers and assistants muscles throughout the range of motion of the exercise.  What this means is that the muscles in your body that would normally be stressed to help stabilize and assist in the motion are not stressed and therefore do not get a chance to develop to their true potential.

Accommodating Resistance

Air Pressure Accommodating Resistance Machine

Exercising on an accommodating resistance machine allows you to exert maximum resistance throughout the entire range of motion of the exercise you are performing.  They are designed to match the leverage changes in your body during while performing an exercise.  It does this by controlling the speed of your exercise movement.


Depending on who you talk to, the advantages of the accommodating resistance device is that it eliminates ballistic movement.  A ballistic movement is one where there is inertial movement after an explosive maximum force muscle contraction. An example is performing a bench press.  The start of the upward movement is created by a ballistic force.


Similar to the variable resistance machines, the accommodating resistance movements are unnatural.  The elimination of ballistic movements is seen as a disadvantage because nature intended our muscles and joints to function using ballistic movements.

Static Resistance

An isometric exercise is a form of static resistance.  It is performed when you contract your muscles without movement.


None of any significance.


Performing a static resistance exercise makes you only strong in that particular muscle in that particular position.  To make muscles stronger you need to stress the muscles in their entire range of motion.

Also, if you have high blood pressure static resistance exercises are not recommended because of the extreme stress imposed on the body during the exercise.

Free Weights vs Machines

Now that you have a better understanding about the how different types of equipment work as it relates to resistance, lets take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of free weights vs machines.

Free Weights

Free Weight Exercise Room

The term “free weights” refers to a weight, such as a barbell, dumbbell, or kettle ball, not attached to a specialized weight machine or exercise device. Free weights allow movement in any direction and so lend themselves to a wide variety of exercise routines for weight training.


Performing exercises with dumbbells and barbells are very effective in developing the stabilizer and assistant muscles around a joint.  Your antagonistic muscles must act against your agonist muscles to perform the exercise.  Because of this by using free weights you can more closely match the joint patterns and leverages that are used in your specific sport or basic bodily movement.

If you are looking for greater overall strength and power, then dumbbells and barbells are the way to go.  They are more versatile in the amount of exercises your can perform and you can easily exercise specific muscles or muscle groups.

If you are looking to increase your core strength, balance, and stability even more than is typical with free weights on a bench; then try them on a stability ball. Almost every exercise that can be performed on a bench using free weights can be performed on a fitness ball stability ball.


Other than the space it takes to have free weights and the possibility of an accident in a crowded weight room; the only disadvantage from an exercise point of view is that in certain exercises it is difficult to gain maximum isolation of a muscle or muscle group.

If the gym you belong to does not have a wide variety and multiple sets of dumbbells, you often have to wait for someone to finish their routine to be able to continue yours.  And, some beginners are a bit intimidated by the free weight section in their gym and might need some assistance to overcome this fear.


Exercise Machines in a Gym

Weight machines use gravity as the primary source of resistance, and a combination of simple machines to convey that resistance, to the person using the machine. Each of the simple machines (pulley, lever, wheel, incline) changes the mechanical advantage of the overall machine relative to the weight.  Exercise machines also include such things as cycles, rowing machines, stair steppers, etc.


If you are looking for a fast and easy (ease of use) workout and do not have a lot of time, then machines are the way to go.  You can complete and entire workout circuit and hit all the major muscles of your body in a very short time.  Using machines is easier (ease of use) since changing the amount of resistance is usually very easy.  Whereas with free weight you may have to change multiple plates to achieve the desired resistance.

Some machines are actually better at isolating specific muscles.


Some machines do not allow for the stabilizer and helper muscles to be incorporated in the exercise.  They might also control the speed and/or resistance over the range of motion of the exercise.  This results in removing the natural movements of the exercise.

If you are concentrating on sports performance training where you need to develop maximum velocity and high speed training, it is nearly impossible to achieve it using machines.

If you are smaller or larger than the “average” person, you may find that you are not able to adjust the machines properly to fit your body type.

On some of the elliptical designed machines the cams are not properly designed to conform to the force curve of the intended movement.  Others do not offer a complete muscle workout in the specific range of motion of the exercise.

Free Weights vs Machines: And the Winner is . . .

For myself and many sport exercise scientists the free weight rule supreme.  With the main advantage that they allow the assistant muscles and stabilizer muscles to play a prominent roll in the exercise movement.  Stabilizer muscles and assistant muscles must act in all directions to help with the exercise.  Using a machine pretty much eliminates them in the workout.  Free weights also aid in the development of core strength just by the nature of having to perform some isometric exercises while lifting along with the stabilizers and assistant muscles.

That is not to say that you should never use machines.  Back in the day some of my favorite machines were: triceps cable extension with a rope, “lat” pull-down, leg press, leg curl, leg extension, calf raises, and two arm cable lateral raises.  And there were the days were I was pressed for time and would jump into a machine circuit

It is my opinion that if you have the motivation to exercise and want have a fitness lifestyle; then I say do whatever it takes to keep you happy and the exercises fun to keep you coming back for more.  I give anyone credit for being “out there” doing it rather than sitting on their butts feeding the piehole.

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