Using free weight equipment versus resistance machines is one of several topics that creates plenty of arguments in the world of body building. Which form is better, which scenario results in the most noticeable gains? Is there a definite answer to the question? Keep reading and come to your own conclusion.

To dive head first into the argument, the assumed most effective form of resistance training is with the use of free weights. This is above all because they enable you to conduct the exercise through numerous movements and altered techniques. They also include the contribution of secondary muscle groups to execute the exercise in comparison to machines; however, it can be reasoned that machines allow you to isolate single muscle groups more. Consider a dumbbell standing shoulder press for example. To accomplish the exercise in the correct manner you would be required to keep your core as tight as possible whilst carrying out the exercise, thus including your core and shoulders in one, plus the extra muscles involved the more exerting the exercise which results in more calories burned or more mass gained. In comparison to a sit down machine shoulder press where you would just be using your shoulders to execute the exercise whilst at the same time not having to worry too much about form. This is due to the fact that you are restricted to just one up and down range of motion by the apparatus you are using, which is ideal for complete isolation of your shoulders.

To help determine which option is more effective, we will examine the pros and disadvantages of each routine and let you come to your own conclusion.

Advantages of using free weights

Additional muscles incorporated - Exercising with free weight equipment allows you to lift in a natural plane of movement, meaning your actual range of motion is unrestricted and your joints are performing naturally. Just like the movements completed in everyday life and not just down the gym, you do not get out of bed in the morning or run up and down the stairs like a robot programmed to bend its leg ninety degrees at the knee or turn an exact movement to the side. This is an advantage as it permits you to work your body and muscles at various angles all the time whilst incorporating secondary muscle groups indirectly to stabilise the primary muscle groups. It is also a lot healthier on your joints than following an exercise or activity with a single pattern of movement.

Quicker gains - Follows on from the above point. The more muscle groups incorporated the quicker you will notice overall improvements, irrespective if you end goal is increased mass or strength, or weight loss via more total calories burned.

Disadvantages of using free weights

Insufficient isolation - If you are not performing efficiently concerning technique, then using free weight equipment can mean you are not isolating your individual muscle as much as you like or your exercise is not as efficient at working the muscle it is supposed to be working. If we look at an ordinary straight bar bicep curl for example, accomplishing the move whilst standing up is more effective if your form is perfect as you are isolating your biceps whilst tightening your core to stabilise your body throughout your lifts. If your technique is inefficient and you find yourself swaying a little (often a case of the weight being too heavy), then you are cheating by involving your shoulders and momentum to lift to bar up to your chest, thus not completely isolating your biceps. If you were to perform this exercise using a bicep curl machine, then it is much easier to hold your upper torso in a steady position and ultilise your biceps completely to lift the weight. In addition to this there is also smaller chance of injury through this method, which forwards us onto our next disadvantage.

Danger of Injury - If you achieve positive failure whilst using free weights and you are in a situation where it is hard to put the weight down (standing shoulder press for example), then without a spotter or training partner close by you might find yourself in some serious trouble. With machines, unless some idiot places their fingers under the weight plates, there is a reduced danger of injury as all body parts should be kept out of the way. This also makes free weights not a good idea for anyone recovering from injury as the muscle group or secondary muscle groups and joints might not be stronger enough to manage the weight and various patterns of movement. Machines restrict the need for surrounding muscles to work and enable you to return the weight to the stack easily when required.

Advantages of using machines

Great for beginners - Using machines is very appealing to the first time trainer. To begin with, quite often every machine has its own name (shoulder press, chest press), which makes it easier and more attractive to operate that piece of equipment to train the individual muscle.

Simpler to use and less need to focus on technique - Just place the pin into your desired weight, change the height of the seat if required, sit down and stay on the apparatus's sole range of motion. Simple! This also makes them a good choice for supersets if you do not have access to a decent weight selection of free weights, as you may have to alter the plates on dumbbells etc. between each exercise. However, in this day and age most gyms do have a large range of different weights.

Easier for warming up - Not dissimilar to the above, just place the pin in a low weight and complete a few quick warm up sets.

Capacity to reach positive and negative failure - As stated, unless you have a training partner or spotter when using free weight equipment, it can be rather unsafe hitting positive or negative failure. You do not want to be in a position where you are letting go the weight and damaging the gym. Through using machines, you can push yourself that little bit harder as you know the weight will drop to the stack once you hit fatigue.

Disadvantages of using machines

Inadequate strength gains - The majority of gym goers find that even though they may be permitted to shift some serious weight when using machines, they find it tough going to achieve similar weight when trying a similar move using free weights. This is due to the fact as already stated through the use of machines you are only focusing on a single muscle, whereas using free weights permits the the incorporation of secondary muscle groups at the same time. Take a chest press for example; the main muscle worked is the chest, secondary maybe the triceps. Now attempting a free weight barbell bench press, the focus muscle worked is the chest, secondary and stabilising muscle groups used include triceps, shoulders, back and core. Hence, this option is certainly more challenging to achieve using a similar weight to the chest press using the machine.

Insufficient size gains - This is again debatable however the greater you isolate the muscle over incorporating a variety of muscle groups in the same movements then the less quick you will see results in overall size. Take the principle and second muscle groups utilised in the above chest press example again and consider which method is going to generate overall increased gains. Hence, challenging one of the above machine use advantages, for this reason machines are ideally left to the more experienced or those who by this time have good size and wish to pay more attention to individual or lacking muscle groups.

In conclusion of the above, it looks like machines have more benefits than free weight equipment. However, in our opinion the fact that more muscle groups are incorporated when form is correct using free weights is the biggest winner, be it dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. Of course, the best program would be to mix it up. You will notice results and achieve your goals no matter which item equipment you use as always given that diet, progression and intensity is sufficient!

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