Which is More Effective: Gym Machines vs. Free Weights?


Are those barbells and dumbbells better for your gains?

The gym is home to plenty of different pieces of equipment, and there is truly something for everyone. You have treadmills and stairclimbers for cardio, you have some cable stacks and pull up bars, and then you have the machines and free weights such as dumbbells and barbells. This is where many will debate the topic of gym machines vs. free weights. That being said, are free weights better than machines when it comes to your gains? Or are the machines better than free weights?

The hardcore, old school bodybuilders and powerlifters claim free weights promotes all around strength by activating auxiliary muscles you need in balancing and controlling the weight. The machine enthusiast claim machines make it easier to push more weight, specifically for isolated body parts. So who’s right? Can one truly be better than the other? We decided to take a closer look and see if we could end this battle once and for all..

An Overview of Gym Machines

gym machines vs free weights
Image courtesy of Ronnie Coleman Instagram

Despite what the purist tells you, gym machines do have their strong points – especially if you’re a bodybuilder that is training solely for hypertrophy rather than strength. I say that because machines allow you to push massive weight and isolate body-parts easily and effectively. Studies show lifters can use up to 1.5 times more on plate-loaded machines than with free weights. Because of their set path of movement, they also force you to have perfect form, thus greatly reducing the risk of injury.  Also, the ability to lift more weights in a short amount of time can help you to overload the muscle, making them a better option for hypertrophy. That being said, if you’re getting ready for a show and a certain body part is lacking, this could be the way to go. Other benefits include, eliminating the need for a spotter, unless you are doing forced reps. Another benefit to machines is they are good if you’re coming off of an injury, or if you are an older lifter who can’t handle the strain of free weights.

The bottom line is when Arthur Jones invented the Nautilius line of exercise machines he wanted to bring fitness to the mainstream by making exercises easier and more convenient. Unlike the old heads, we don’t believe that easier necessarily means bad, however they might not be able to offer the overall greatest advantages that free weights provide. How so? Let’s keep going….

Breaking Down Free Weights

gym machines vs free weights
Image courtesy of Ronnie Coleman Instagram

We’ve all heard the story (or maybe this is your story) about the guy who thought he was killing it by putting up over 300 pounds on every machine and was violently brought back to earth when he couldn’t push 185 on the bench press. But why does this scenario happen so often? It’s simple. As we mentioned before when the machine holds the weight in a fixed, stabilized position – it’s essentially doing the job of what your auxiliary and stabilizer muscles are suppose to be doing, thus stealing from your strength gains. Studies consistently show greater muscle activation of the shoulder in a barbell bench as opposed to a Smith Machine.

Squats are another great example of this. A barbell squat is going to to involve your lower back, core, legs and glutes. This forces your body to compensate for the movement of the bar as well as the movement of your body. Your body has to coordinate all these factors to make a solid compound movement. If you were to do this on a machine you’d be looking at the leg press. Now while the leg press has it’s function, it takes out a lot of muscles (especially the lower back) by stabilizing the weight for you. Now only does it take away from your body’s strength but the lower back is a key component in good form and posture.

Lastly is the range of motion. Free weights allow you to hit the same body part from many angles and extend your total range of motion. With free weights you can get creative and tweak any exercise to give you a custom physique. I don’t know about you guys but when I go to the gym I’m working on my masterpiece, all creative licenses belong to me. The more control I can get, the better.

Free Weights vs. Gym Machines

So who ultimately reigns supreme in the battle of gym machines vs free weights? The truth is that both have their benefits, and neither should be neglected. Depending on what your goals are, you should have a larger focus on one than the other, however.

For example, if you are a powerlifter, you should give the slight advantage to free weights because of their boost to greater advantages in terms of strength and muscle mass. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore accessory movements, as they can help to strengthen weak areas and this increased strength will transfer over to your big compound lifts.

Now, if you are a bodybuilder, you should put less of a focus on strength training and more on hypertrophy. That being said, do not ignore training heavy compounds, but there will be more of a focus on those hypertrophic movements that can be done on gym machines, rather than with a barbell and some plates.

Gym Machines vs. Free Weights Wrap Up

No one should stick with one exclusively over the other, it does not have to be a battle of gym machines vs. free weights, but they can be used together to craft an incredible physique worthy of stepping on stage. Out there in the real world – it’s best to put your feet in both worlds so you can gain the advantages that each option has to offer.

What do you prefer to use in your workouts? Gym machines or free weights? Let us know in the comments section below or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter. Stay pumped!

Terry Ramos
As a personal trainer and writer, Terry loves changing lives through coaching and the written word. Terry has a B.S. in Kinesiology and is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and ISSA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He enjoys playing music, reading, and watching films when he's not writing or training.