the joy of strength training


November 15th, 2007 at 12:22 am

Free weights and machines: the debate

You will often hear or read people debating the merits of training with free weights or machines. Most people seem to fall into one camp or the other. A lot of it comes down to individual circumstances: the purpose of one’s training, a bad experience with one method, or simply a personal preference.

I am a fan of free weights and use them in my training. Not because I think they are necessarily “better” than machines, but I did always think that free weights looked more fun and more functional than machines. I am also a big fan of bodyweight training, which many people also dismiss for strength or bodybuilding. But this post isn’t about my personal predilections. I want to take an open-minded look at the debate and try to draw out the arguments on both sides. I’ll tell you right up front that in my opinion, there isn’t a straight answer!

How muscles are targeted

When lifting free weights, not only are you exercising the primary muscle groups involved in the lift, but you are also exercising other muscles that your body uses to stabilise itself while performing the lift. For example, in almost every lift your core muscles to help perform the exercise, even if it is ostensibly targeting only one muscle, like a calf raise.

Machines are designed to work only the target muscle or muscle group and so they are constructed to stabilise the other parts of the body. For example, on a bicep curl machine you are sitting down and resting your elbows on a platform so your arms are the only things that move. This allows you to put all your effort into the bicep curl, without having to expend effort keeping upright and balancing the barbell.

Fans of free weights feel that the extra work the body has to do when lifting free weights is more beneficial and more true to life. Afficionados of machines like the fact that they can concentrate on one muscle group at a time. This is not to say that no stabilisers are involved when using machines. For example, the lower back is a stabiliser in the leg press. But with free weights, many lifts are more or less a full body exercise!

Form and technique

When using free weights, individual trainees will move slightly differently. This is due to differences in the body, such as longer limbs, greater flexibility and so on. So although everyone is aiming for an ideal form or technique for a lift, in reality there will be subtle differences in the way the weight is moved, the path of the bar, the position of the body and so on. Training free weights means that you have to devote a lot of effort to good form and technique, especially in the big compound lifts. Pages upon pages have been devoted to strength training technique. These days it’s not ‘how much can you bench?’ so much as ‘how long is your chapter on squats?’!

Machines, on the other hand, are designed to dictate the path that the bar travels in (except for cable machines). If you use a shoulder press machine, for example, the bar will travel straight up and down, all you need to do is push it. Using a machine can help you to keep better form in some exercises. For instance, you often see people using momentum to curl with free weights, thrusting their hips forward and bending the lower back. You can’t really do this on a machine so it’s easy to keep good form.

However, proponents of free weights argue that with lifts like squat and bench press, having the bar travel along a fixed path is actually detrimental to the trainee as it does not make allowances for differences in their body and the way they lift. It is also not a completely natural movement. If you watch someone squatting or pressing with a free barbell, you will see that the bar does not travel exactly in a straight vertical line, so the machine is forcing the bar into an unnatural path.

Purpose of training

Machines were developed to help bodybuilders, who often like to focus on one muscle or muscle group at a time. Bodybuilders are not terribly interested in strength for strength’s sake or functionality, the primary focus is on aesthetics. If you are going to train your abs in isolation anyway, does it really matter whether they get additional training as stabilisers or not?

Machines have also been a boon for gyms and personal trainers. Clients who want to look good but don’t want to spend hours perfecting their form and technique can quickly be set up with a few machines and away they go. People who are intimidated by the free weights room or think you have to be big and strong before you are ‘allowed’ to lift weights can achieve their goals using machines.

Those who are training for strength, however, or training for a sport or martial art are more likely to be interested in training the whole body or large areas of the body as a unit rather than isolating individual muscles. It’s how the body functions, after all, and a sportsperson is going to benefit from that co-ordination, balance and agility that comes from training with free weights. Weight-lifting sports such as Olympic weight-lifting, power lifting, strongman and so on use free weights of various kinds, so if you wanted to get into a weight-lifting sport, you would need to concentrate on free weights.

Crossover exercises

I’m not referring to the popular cable crossover exercise, but exercises that cross over well from machines to free weights (and vice versa). Many exercises can simply be done either with free weights or with a machine and there’s not much point in using both. However, some exercises can work quite well when machines and free weights are used in combination.

For me, an example is the pull-up machine. Of course, you can train pull-ups without using a machine at all, even if you can’t do a single bodyweight pull-up. You can use negatives, dead hangs and so on. But the machine is pretty useful, especially for drop sets. I often do as many bodyweight pull-ups as I can, then instantly take off some weight using the machine so that I can get some more reps out.

Substitute exercises

If you are injured or rehabilitating, machines can sometimes be used where free weights can’t – precisely because you can better isolate the effort.

Some trainers also use machines if their clients are not able bio-mechanically to perform a particular exercise, or if they need to do some pre-work, flexibility etc before attempting the free weight exercise. For example, leg press is often used as a substitute for squat.

Building muscle

Sometimes you will hear people claiming that either free weights or machines “build more muscle”. But the target muscle can’t tell the difference between a free weight and a machine weight. To the muscle, it is just resistance.

There are arguments on both sides. Free weights work more muscles per exercise. It is also more likely that people who use free weights will do the ‘big’ lifts like squat and deadlift, which have a lot of muscle building potential. However, when you are pressing with a free weight, there is less resistance at the top of the lift and more at the bottom, whereas a machine is able to adjust the resistance all the way up the movement to compensate for this effect.

This was what Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus machines, saw as the flaw in free weight training. A barbell does not provide variable resistance throughout the complete range of motion. A Nautilus machine, declared Jones, was simply an “improved barbell”, because it does provide this variable resistance.


I have heard passionate advocates on both side of the debate and I doubt it will ever be settled definitively.

Personally, I don’t think anyone could tell from looking at a trainee whether they trained with free weights or with machines. I certainly can’t! There are just too many other variables coming into play. Therefore it’s probably not the life or death decision that a lot of people would have you believe, but it certainly gives a lot of juice to the fitness forums and we all love a good debate!

Further reading

The articles below provide a bit of food for thought on training approaches and philosophies. Apart from the first one which is a bit of fun, they are not free weight v machine articles, but I think they all inform that debate. topic of the week: Are Free Weights Or Machines Better For Results? – three different views

Arthur Jones by Joe Mullen – article for Iron Age magazine about the inventor of Nautilus machines

New Associations, New Muscle by Dan John – a look back at the associations we used to make where strength training was concerned and how they can be proved wrong

15 Things I Thought I Knew by Mike Boyle – an amusing look at how opinions can change over the years

Developing a Training Philosophy by Alwyn Cosgrove – how not to follow someone else’s philosophy but learn to recognise your own needs

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  • 1

    I am also a big fan of bodyweight training, which many people also dismiss for strength or bodybuilding.

    weightlifting bodybuilding on November 19th, 2007
  • 2

    Always good to hear!

    gubernatrix on November 19th, 2007
  • 3

    One interesting thing I’ve seen lately is using resistance bands or chains with free weights. That helps to add more resistance at the top and so even out the strength curve. Yet another option..

    I’m always a fan of people who are fair to all sides, thus good job on the post! 🙂 This is why I like Ross so much as well..

    Shawn Fumo on December 3rd, 2007
  • 4

    Cheers! Yes, resistance bands look pretty useful. Much cheaper than a machine as well, which is a factor if you work out at home.

    gubernatrix on December 3rd, 2007
  • 5

    Check out this months Fitpro Network for my side of this debate in their debate forum article.

    I do think though there are times when you can tell the difference between those who lift a lot on machines and with bodybuilding type protocols compared to those who Oly lift or powerlift.

    good review though hun! 😉

    Graeme on December 13th, 2007
  • 6

    Do you mean in terms of their physique, or in terms of the way they move, lift, train etc?

    I’ll check out the article on your blog.

    gubernatrix on December 15th, 2007
  • 7

    Great Site Gubernatrix!,

    Ok, Let me throw an extra monkey wrench into the machinery. If you had to choose b/w only machines or only bodyweight training (to include isometrics in w/ bodyweight training)…Which one would you choose? I would go with bodyweight and Iso’s myself, love to read the responses.
    Like i said great site, keep up the great work Kiddo!

    Guy on March 17th, 2008
  • 8

    Bodyweight training! It’s a no-brainer for me. Isometrics are also really making a comeback – what do you do for yours?

    Cheers for your kind words about the site.

    gubernatrix on March 17th, 2008
  • 9


    Im a Girevik working towards my R.K.C here in TX, in my teen years (folks hated me lifting weights) i did iso’s and cals’s. I love BW & KB training, for me it’s the right mix. Mike Mahler & Ross Enamait have been influences on me since i discovered KB back in 2003. Working as a corrections officer for 20 years has given me some interesting experiences. Among them, whatching cons do BW workouts for size, strength, endurnace E.t.c.(solitary fitness made manifest) so yeah the short of it i don’t like machines 😉 …Like i said great site.
    Cheers Kiddo.

    Guy on March 18th, 2008
  • 10

    Very interesting. Good luck with the kettlebell cert!

    gubernatrix on March 19th, 2008
  • 11

    Free Weights and machines: the debate

    With all due respect, much of th comments, not only within the article, but by other comments seem to have taken the low road, when considering that it is now, the year 2009.

    In effect, “Machines” started their hey-day in l970, with the invention of Nautilus exercise machines by Arthur Jones.

    Muscles, as they contract, and move their range-of-motion, have a different strength level. Although, Arthur Jones may have been the first to point that out in a way that it was easy to understand.

    Any person can prove this very easily, by doing several isometric contractions, throughout the range-of-motion of a curling motion (as an example).

    That absolute anatomical fact is a major element of producing an improved a greater contraction when using properly designed exercise machine that when using a dumbbell.

    Its clear that dumbbells weight the same through-out the contraction. So, naturally if an arm is 60 % stronger in one angle than another, and the weight does not bet heavier at that angle, as is can be made to do when using a machine with a properly designed cam.

    Of course, this is a simplified explanation of that element of exercise.

    That is known as a machines ability to supply the principle of “variable resistance.” Any semi-versed exercist (I just made that word up) can understand the value of the concept, when compared to free weights.

    The idea that the “core” muscles are somehow, worked “harder” with free weights is only partially correct. The contraction of the muscles, when trying to “stabilizing” a movement is an typically an isometric contraction which may have the ability to strengthen the core muscles.

    However, like an isometric contraction, it would only be valid in one angle (typically) and all of the other angles of the full-range of the stabilizers potential movement would not be exercised.

    Machines (Nautilus – were not created to help bodybuilders, they were created to improve the quality of exercise.

    It can be argued that using free weights are better than machines based on the argument that free weights move in other than a straight line as machines seem to do so.

    The good news is that the human body, as muscles contract, they do so, and move the body part, or parts, in a circular motion.

    So, in truth, that is why using a properly designed machine is also better than free weights.
    Well designed machines, have a properly designed “cam” as part of the design. The cam should be in a shape that is not circular, because usually, that weight stack is attached to the cam by way of a chain, or cable.

    That causes the resistance to be lifted and as the resistance is lifted, the chain, wraps partially around the cam. As the chain wraps around the cam, the radius of the cam, from its center to its edge is changing.

    The change in radius is like a change in leverage to the contracting muscles, meaning in simple terms;
    The resistance is getting heavier where the muscles are stronger, and the resistance is lesser at the angles where the muscles are weaker.

    That’s a simple explanation of variable resistance.

    As for the idea that free weights build more muscles quicker. That is not true, given that muscles vary in strength as they move, and free weights do not vary in resistance as they move so they do not provide the resistance that they body request.

    No person with a simple grasp,of bio-mechanics, or anatomy, can claim that non-varying resistance is capable of proving more intense muscle contractions than High Tech equipment.

    It is the intensity of the contraction that provides muscle strength, muscle endurance during repetitions, and power during power in sports performance.

    Best wishes to all.

    Joe Mullen

    Joe Mullen on January 20th, 2009
  • 12

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your input, greatly appreciated. It is good to have a considered view on that side of the debate. You’ll notice that in the article I was very careful not to say whether one was better than the other because it is very difficult to say. It all depends what you are trying to get out of your exercise.

    One thing that I would say in favour of free weights is that they got me into powerlifting as a sport – which of course can’t be done without them. However, I do use machines in my training and find them a useful part of the mix.

    gubernatrix on January 22nd, 2009
  • 13

    I offer more in depth details and suggestions there.
    As a matter of policy, he generously rewards those who “pay it forward” to help others succeed.
    Take a look around your area and see what job opportunities are available in the local businesses and take a look online as well before you make a final decision.

    extra income on July 21st, 2014


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