At most gyms, there is a pretty wide selection of exercise equipment.
Usually you’ll have different types of cardio machines, machines for resistance training, along with dumbbells and barbells as well.
Even putting aside the cardio for a second, there is a lot to choose from, and it can be tough to know what you should be focusing on.
Should you be sticking mainly to gym machines, which tend to isolate specific muscle groups, or is it a better idea to focus more on free weights if you’re looking to build strength and muscle mass?
As is often the case, there isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all answer here.
There are some situations where machines make more sense, whereas in other cases free weights are the better choice.
It all comes down to where you are with your training, your specific goals, and your overall comfort level.
To help break this down further, in this article I’ll be discussing the various pros and cons of using gym machines vs free weights, so that you can decide what will work best for you.
Gym Machine Advantages
First of all, by gym machines I mean any type of machine where you are locked into a fixed plane of motion for the exercise.
This includes machines like the leg press, leg extension, chest press, lat pulldown, and machine curls, just to name a few.
The smith machine is a tricky one, and could potentially fall into this category, but for the purposes of this article I’ll be considering that on the free weight side.
So, let’s get right into some of the advantages of working out with gym machines.
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Advantage #1: Gym Machines Can Be Easier To Learn
If you’re new to working out, and especially to resistance training, then you’ll often find that gym machines have much less of a learning curve than free weights.
Really, there isn’t much of a learning curve at all with most of these!
You simply get yourself set up on the machine, according to the instructions, and perform the exercise as listed.
Since most gym machines are locked in a fixed plane of motion, there is very little room for error here, and gradually refining your form isn’t nearly as important as with free weights.
Advantage #2: Gym Machines Can Be Safer
When you’re moving heavy weights in the gym, there is of course the risk of hurting yourself.
In fact, gym injuries are fairly common, with both novices and more experienced lifters.
One key benefit of using gym machines over free weights is that they will often reduce the risk of getting injured.
As I mentioned above, form is less of an issue here, so if you’re newer to strength training, dealing with existing injuries – or simply want to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible – then gym machines might be your best bet.
Advantage #3: Gym Machines Don’t Require A Spotter
For a number of free weight exercises, having a spotter there can definitely be helpful.
Doing these alone can be intimidating, especially as you progress to heavier and heavier weights.
Even certain dumbbell exercises tend to benefit from having a spotter there to support you – like dumbbell shoulder presses, for example,
In contrast, gym machines don’t require a spotter, which means that you can comfortably work out with them alone.
Free Weight Advantages
Now that we’ve covered some of the benefits of working out using gym machines, let’s switch gears and take a look at what free weights have to offer.
By free weights, I’m referring mainly to barbells and dumbbells – although kettlebells are also included in this group.
Advantage #1: Free Weights Can Be More Functional
Functional fitness has become a buzz word in recent years, and can mean a number of different things, so let me clarify what I’m talking about here.
Basically, free weights can be seen as more ‘functional’ than gym machines, since they more closely mimic movements that you would do in regular life.
In real life, movement isn’t restricted in the way that it is with gym machines, where you’re operating in a very limited plane of movement.
Instead, it much more closely resembles what you might do with certain free weight exercises.
For example, the deadlift is a very functional movement, in that it teaches you to pick up heavy objects safely and effectively.
Likewise, the squat is much more similar to something that you’d do in real life, compared to say the leg press.
In addition, certain free weight exercises allow you to train each side of your body independently, helping to improve your balance and stability.
As a result, there is an argument that free weight training will carry over more into your regular life, compared to working only with gym machines.
Advantage #2: Free Weights Can Be More Versatile
In order to get a good, comprehensive workout using gym machines, you need a lot of equipment.
Realistically, you need a specialized machine to train each major muscle group.
Yes, sometimes you’ll find multi-station gym machines, which consolidate several exercises into one unit, but often this isn’t the case.
With free weights, on the other hand, you can train very effectively with only a few key pieces of equipment.
In fact, with just a barbell, a power rack, and an adjustable bench, you can get a very comprehensive workout (and if you’re building a home gym, this is definitely the more economical option).
This means that if you learn to train with free weights, you won’t be as dependent on the specific gym machines at your particular gym, and will be far more capable of working out effectively in a variety of different situations.
Advantage #3: Free Weights Can Be More Efficient
In general, compound exercises tend to be more efficient than isolation exercises.
Compound exercises – like squats, deadlifts, and the bench press – train multiple muscle groups effectively; in fact, with just these 3 exercises, you are working most of the muscle groups in your entire body.
The same can’t be said with many gym machine exercises, which tend focus on fewer muscle groups (although there are exceptions to this).
This means that from an efficiency perspective, you can get a good workout doing fewer free weight exercises, compared to what you would need if you relied only on gym machines.
Gym Machines Vs Free Weights: The Verdict
So now that we’ve been through the advantages of both gym machines and free weights, you’re probably wondering which is better overall, right?
Well, as I mentioned above (and as you’ve probably gathered by now) neither one of them is categorically better.
The reality is that gym machines are going to be a better fit for certain people, whereas for others it makes more sense to stick primarily with free weights.
Moreover, for many people, a combination of both is going to be the best bet.
So, to keep things simple, if you are very new to working out, dealing with an existing injury, or just kind of intimidated by free weight training, then I would recommend sticking more with gym machines, at least initially.
On the other hand, if you’re more experienced, and don’t have any significant injuries, then I would instead recommend working primarily with free weights, and then potentially including some machine exercises later on in the workout.
At the end of the day, both gym machines and free weights have their pros and cons, so don’t limit yourself if you’re comfortable incorporating both into your workout routine.
Where do you stand on the gym machines vs free weights debate? Let us know in the comments below!