Free Weights vs. Machines - What You Should Be Using

This may be a poor analogy but I remember the first time I walked into a gym. Looking around at the endless options it felt like I was staring at a buffet with food I had never seen before: rows upon rows of machines and free weights all gathered in one room waiting to be used - the anticipation was almost too much to bear.

I told you, bad analogy.

If any of the above sparks some deja vu for you than we might as well admit now that we're soul sisters and hitting the gym is almost always exciting ....... almost because our kindred spirits also know how hard it can be to get a workout done when any brilliant show is on, (walking dead fans where you at!)

If you find yourself on the opposite side of the fence then walking into a gym, on your first or hundredth visit, and deciding what to use can be overwhelming.

Whether you enjoy going to the gym or you despise it (kudos to you especially), you generally only have so much time for one workout .... so what do you use?


Free weights?



First off let me state that in order to be successful you should know exactly what you're doing in the gym every single visit. This applies to all of you, no matter what your goal is.

So now that we know what we're doing in the gym, some followup questions arise:

Why are you choosing ....

Machines over free weights?

That specific exercise?

That exercise execution?

Take a moment. Think about your current program.

Can you answer any of these questions? Can your trainer? Can your workout buddy?

If the answer is "why golly gee Tamara I/we can't answer any of these" I suggest you keep reading

Free weights versus machines.
What do you chose?
Better yet, what SHOULD you chose?

Free weights = barbells, dumbbells

Machines = leg extensions, chest press, row, leg press, etc.

Let me start by saying that going from a machine to free weights is like going from crawling to running - you may understand the concept behind it but you've completely skipped over learning how to actually perform the movement - most likely resulting in an injury.

On a machine you sit in your pre-adjusted seat, select your weight, and begin performing repetitions through a predetermined range of motion. When you pick up a pair of dumbbells there's a whole subconscious thought process that goes on before you even begin your lift. As you move through your range of motion you're not only using the prime movers involved in the lift but are also incorporating your synergist and stabilizer muscles.

Prime movers - these are the main muscles involved in a specific lift. For example - during a leg extension the quadriceps are your prime movers. In a lat pulldown the prime movers are your latissimus dorsi, better known as your lats. Hamstring curl? You got it, your hamstrings.

Synergist - these muscles are secondary to your prime movers. They assist your major muscles during a lift. For example: we know that your latissimus dorsi (lats) are your prime movers during a lat pulldown but your biceps and rhomboids also play a major role, making them secondary muscles. Another example would be a squat: depending on where your feet are positioned your prime mover may be your quadriceps but your synergist muscles can be your hamstrings, gluteus maximus/minimus/medius, calves, and back.

Stabilizers - a bunch of smaller muscles that assist your primary and secondary muscles during a lift. These are automatically recruited when it comes to executing any major movement; they help the muscle your targeting balance the load and prevent your body from dropping the weight on your head. Ever tried to perform a movement with free weights and noticed your arms shaking? Well these are your stabilizers! They're shaking because they're not strong enough and they're not strong enough because they haven't been trained enough.

Now when you hop on a machine you are, as previously mentioned, guided through a predetermined range of motion that works your prime movers and some of your synergist muscles but doesn't begin to touch your stabilizers. Ever tried to perform a movement with free weights and notice your arms shaking? Well these are your stabilizers and yours arms are shaking because your stabilizers aren't strong enough and they're not strong enough because you've been working out on machines!

Simply put when you use machines you only learn approximately 25% of what an exercise actually entails making it nearly impossible to lift the same weight with the same accuracy when you move over to free weights.

So here's what machines teach you:

Positioning - you learn where the weight starts in relation to your body and where it ends

Execution - you learn what the movement looks like: push/pull, out/in, up/down, etc.

And that's it.

I also want to take a moment to talk about body awareness. When lifting weights freely your degree of body awareness spikes and your concentration boosts to avoid injury from dropping the weight and to ensure correct technique and form without the help of a machine. When you hop onto a machine you subconsciously let it guide you through it's predetermined path; there is no worry of falling weights or weak arms straying from the range of motion. Awareness is there... minimally

Here's a couple smaller issues to keep in mind when using machines

  • Target audience: unfortunately most machines are designed for those around 5"7/5"8 leaving anyone outside this range feeling awkward and out of place

  • Compound movements and workout time: machines don't offer the same selection as free weights when it comes to performing compound movements. The lack of variety may force you to use additional machines to achieve the same workout, increasing your allotted timeframe

For those in love with machines: to compliment my own workouts I too throw in a couple of mechanical movements - so I'm not completely against you!

To prove my point here's some mechanical benefits:

  • Lift heavy, safely - feel free to test your boundaries and lift as much as you can - no spotter necessary

  • Faster & Easier - simply chose your weight with a dial or pin and move quickly between exercises

  • Beginners - easier for beginners to remember what they're doing (but lets not forget the above)

  • Rehab - certain machines can be fantastic for rehabilitating muscle groups

Recapped Thoughts

  • Going from a machine to free weights is like going from crawling to running - the concept makes sense but since you've skipped over learning how to actually perform the movement you're chance of injury is higher

  • If you're new to the weight lifting world remember that machines only teach you 25% of the biomechanics involved in any lift

  • Learning how to lift free weights properly is essential when it comes to learning more advanced moves later on

  • Machines work your prime movers and synergist muscles with very little impact on your stabilizers

  • Free weights work your prime movers, synergist, AND stabilizers

  • Free weights offer a larger range of exercises including compound movement

  • Once you've learned how to use free weights properly machines will compliment your workout! You can lift heavier, move quicker, and help rehabilitate old injuries

Any questions? You know where to reach me!

Be Strong(her) Today!

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