Free Weights or Machines: What’s the Best Way to Build Strength?

Man lifting a barbell in the gym.

When it comes to exercise equipment, there are more options than ever. Walk into your average mid-sized gym, and you’ll likely find racks of free weights and a sea of machines—everything from barbells and kettlebells to leg presses and lat pulldowns. But in the battle of free weights versus machines, is one option really better than the other?  

“It depends on your goals, says Jennifer Gottlieb, a certified personal trainer and the owner of JLG Fitness in New York City. Although both free weights and machines can help you get stronger, they do it in slightly different ways. To figure out which goal-based, strength-training strategy is right for you, read the guide below.

Goal: Overall health and fitness
Use: Free Weights
Why: “When you use free weights, you have to stabilize your body yourself, instead of relying on a machine to do it,” says Gottlieb. “It isolates more muscle groups.” Using free weights also allows you to train functionally, or in the way that’s similar to how you move your body every day. “Bend over, walk up stairs—to train for overall health and fitness, you want to strengthen your body in a way that’s going to help you get through life functionally,” says Gottlieb. “Sitting in a fixed machine isn’t going to do that.”

Goal: Weight loss
Use: Free Weights
Why: “You want to move more muscles at once and you want to have a higher intensity workout,” says Gottlieb. “So you don’t want to be sitting at all, even on a machine. You need to get more bang for your buck in your workout.” To do that, Gottlieb turns to compound movements, or exercises like a dumbbell lunge with a shoulder press, that combine two moves into one. Says Gottlieb, “You’ll work a lot harder and burn more calories.”

Goal: Rehab an injury or accommodate an existing condition
Use: Machines
Why: “I would advise using machines only if you’re trying to isolate a very specific muscle,” says Gottlieb. “Consider someone who has bad knees or an injury. They’ll want to strengthen the muscles around the knee but likely can’t yet do a squat. Using machines would help them start to slowly build up the muscles in the knees so they can eventually get to a point where they can do squats and lunges and step ups.”

Goal: Focus on one body part
Use: Free weights and machines
Why: Alternating between free weights and machines can help you target one specific area, like your shoulders, says Gottlieb. “Doing a free-weight shoulder press would fire up the stabilizing muscles, activate your core, burn more calories, and achieve a higher rep range, which helps get some endurance training in the muscles,” says Gottlieb. “Then you can go a little bit heavier with a fixed-machine shoulder press. Because you don’t have to use as many stabilizing muscles, machines allow you to lift heavier weights and break down the muscle a little more to get more growth.”

The bottom line: Both free weights and machines can have a place in your exercise regimen, depending on your fitness level and goals. There’s only one golden rule: No matter which you choose, proper form is key. You don’t have to start with bodyweight exercises, but doing so does have advantages. “You don’t need a gym or equipment and it’s super easy to modify the exercises,” says Gottlieb. Plus, she adds, “Most bodyweight exercise build core strength, which is the basis for every exercise as you progress!”

3 Comments   Join the Conversation

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have come to a Plato and my weight can get pass 246 it goes up and down. I workout about 5 max a week and do weights dumb bells etc but not loosing the weight. I have even cut down but now I have given up because I put it all back on again.can you give me some ideas?

  • Hi, can u please give me techniques on how to pull ups and at the same time do the boomerang turning upside down on the pull ups bar? It’s hard for me to lift my butt. What the possible exercises to do to prepare myself in doing that?

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