If you want to get stronger, some kind of resistance training is the way to go. So when you walk into the gym, should you start loading plates onto a barbell or should you just walk up to the first easy-to-use machine you spot? Let's compare both approaches.
Most well-supplied gyms will have a hefty selection of both free weights and machines. Today we're going to skip over the treadmills and other cardio machines (even the underrated rowing machine) and look at these categories of equipment:
- Free Weights include dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and anything else you can pick up and hold. They make your body work against gravity to pick up the object. For certain exercises, you may need a bench to sit or lie on, or other equipment such as a squat cage to conveniently and safely work with the weight.
- Machines include anything that you sit in, or on, while you pull or push a lever through a specific range of motion. For example, a leg extension machine or a chest press machine. Typically you're holding onto handles that use pulleys to lift weights from a stack; you put a pin into the stack to select how much weight you will work with.
Cable machines have characteristics of both, so we're going to leave them on the sidelines of this showdown. To use a cable machine, you pull on a handle attached to a cord -- the cable -- which in turn lifts weights from a stack. So they're a type of machine, but they don't provide a specific range of motion. That means cable machine exercises have a lot in common with free weight exercises.
Free Weights Work More Muscles at a Time, Which Is Both a Pro and a Con
The best thing about free weights is that they work lots of little tiny muscles you almost don't realise you're using. Take a squat for example, which works your quads, the muscles on the front of your thigh. If you used a leg extension machine instead, you could work that same muscle. But squatting with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, you bring more than just your quads into the action. Your inner and outer thigh muscles have to engage to keep your legs in place. Your butt, hamstrings, and core help to keep your body steady while you go through the movement. And depending on how you hold the weight, you may be working your arms as well.
That means you can get almost as much of a workout from a few sets of squats as from a half an hour going around from machine to machine. Big movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and overhead presses are considered "functional" because they translate directly to everyday movements. If you're good at deadlifts, for example, you'll be great at moving couches.
Machines' specificity isn't always a bad thing, though. Say you want to work your quads, but you already did a set of squats and those stabilizing muscles in your hips and core are already fatigued. You can sit down on a leg extension or a leg press machine and work the quads alone. Bodybuilders will sometimes use machines at the end of a gym session to target specific muscles.
Along the same lines, when I was doing physical therapy after knee surgery, I needed to beef up a certain part of my left quad. Functional exercises made up part of my program, but the PT told me that patients make the fastest progress when they get to use a leg extension machine. It's just really good at targeting that specific muscle.
Another reason machines are great for injuries is because you can give your aching body parts a rest. When I was pregnant, I reached a point where I couldn't do squats or deadlifts without pain in my back. But I could still do exercises on certain leg machines. I couldn't do pull-ups anymore, since my abs were useless, but arm machines were no problem.
Machines Are Easier to Learn
Before you rush out and pick up the nearest barbell, remember that you need to know how to work those things! Good form is essential to prevent injury. If you try to deadlift too much weight, and you don't know how to keep your back straight, you could hurt your back. You really need a trainer or an experienced workout buddy to help you learn the right way to lift. (You can also make do with a mirror and a lot of time studying YouTube videos, but a flesh and blood coach is so much better.)
So if you're in the gym one day, maybe taking a class or jogging on the treadmill, you can't just wander over to the weight room and start busting out perfect squats. But you can walk up to a weight machine, read the instructions on its side, and safely crank out your desired number of reps. Even if you go to the trouble of requesting a tour from the gym staff (they're usually happy to oblige), it only takes a few minutes to learn enough to safely complete a full body workout. Machines are so structured that it's difficult to do an exercise wrong.
That means that you're automatically using "good form" rather than having to work for it. Good form helps you get the right benefits from the exercise you're doing. Lean a little too far this way or that, when you're doing a dumbbell exercise, and you might not really be working the muscles you mean to. In other words, machines make it harder to cheat.
Convenience at the Gym Depends on Your Routine (and Your Gym)
At some gyms, the free weight section is always packed with gym rats and lifting veterans, which can be intimidating to a newbie. At others, all the action is on the machines, and the corner with the dumbbells and barbells feels like a ghost town. If you can be flexible about which equipment you use, you double your options.
For example, if the machines are busy, it's easy to pick up a pair of dumbbells instead. Even if the particular pair you want is in use, you can pick up a set of 15's instead of 20's, for example, and just do a few more reps. So in those cases, the free weights are more convenient.
But there are times when the free weights are a bigger pain. If I want to do a decline bench press, I'll have to stake out the bench that can angle downward (my gym only has one), then make sure I've got a bar and plates to go with it. Several benches share the same equipment, so this isn't always a given. And then, to do the exercise safely, I should really have a spotter: either my workout buddy or, if I'm alone, a friendly stranger.
That's a lot of planning just for one exercise. But my gym also has a decline bench press machine, where I can hop on and do basically the same exercise in a matter of seconds. If I'm going to spend a good chunk of my workout time on a certain free weight exercise, then I'll gladly take the time to set it up. But it doesn't make sense to do that for every exercise in a busy gym.
The Verdict: Both Are Useful, But Free Weights Give You More Bang for Your Fitness Buck
Free weights and machines each have their uses, but we're going to declare this a narrow win for the weights. With free weight exercises, you can work more muscles in less time than with machines. Your results will also apply better to real-life situations than if you only ever did machine exercises. And you can get a full-body workout with just a few dumbbells, making them ideal for a home gym.
But machines definitely have their place. They're great if you're trying to isolate specific muscles, or if you're rehabbing an injury. And if you haven't learned how to use free weights yet -- or if you want to try heavyish weights and aren't sure of your form -- the machines give you a relatively safe way to work the same muscles.
I also like machines if I'm doing an "easy" day at the gym, or if I'm having trouble working up the gumption to do a really tough exercise. I can only do a few chin-ups each day, and they take a lot out of me. But I can do a ton of lat pulldowns, an easier exercise that works a lot of the same muscles. I would never pretend they are the same exercise, but allowing myself to do the "easier" version on some days helps me enjoy my routine more. In the end, that makes it easier to stick to. The best workout, after all, is the one you will actually do.