Picture of an extremely ripped bodybuilder holding an Olympic bar wondering which is better: "free weights or machines?"

If you’re looking to pack on some size and get stronger than ever before, some kind of resistance training is unavoidable.

What we’ll look at today is free weights vs resistance machines and which ones are best for building muscle to achieve those goals.

With free weights, we’re thinking of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or any other weight you can grab hold of. You might need some extra equipment by way of a bench or a squat cage but the core exercises can be done purely by making your body work against gravity to lift the weight.

Resistance machines are any machines you sit in or on top of. You use a lever principle to go through a full range of motion. Whether it’s a chest press machine or a pec deck, a leg extension machine or a lat pull down machine, you grab hold of handles which lift weights from a stack using pulleys.

For the purposes of today’s article, we’ll set aside cardio machines or cable machines.

Free Weights

The old-school free weights approach is how body building and weight lifting first kicked off long before technology brought bleeding-edge machines into our lives.

Is the tried and true method really most effective, though?

We’ll walk you through the chief advantages and drawbacks of pumping iron the traditional way…

Pros of Free Weights

  • Working More Muscles: One of the leading benefits of using free weights is the way in which you’re forced to stabilize the weights yourself. The knock-on effect of this is that other muscles will be worked without you even realizing it. Get more done in far less time using free weights while also getting a more effective overall workout
  • Range of Motion: You’re not locked into a set pattern with free weights. This allows for superior movement through a full range of motion without the same restrictions that machines impose and with superior results
  • Variety Counts: Using just a single dumbbell, you have literally hundreds of exercise variations at your disposal. Add in some more basic equipment and imagination is your only limitation. With machines, on the other hand, your breadth of scope is narrowed considerably
  • Ability to Train Anywhere: If you’re traveling for work by car, it’s easy to pop some simple gear like resistance bands and a kettlebell in the trunk of the car. It’s not so easy to find and make the time to visit a strange gym. Consistency is key to packing on size and with free weights, you can train anywhere with relative ease
  • Increased Muscle Activation: Free weights will give you enhanced muscle activation and consequently stimulate more muscle growth crucial for piling on that lean mass
  • Cost: If you prefer the versatility of working out at home, assembling a suite of resistance machines would be prohibitively costly and would also eat up a great deal of space. For a few hundred bucks, you can easily build a killer home set-up stuffed with all the free weights you need

Cons of Free Weights 

  • Form and Injury Risk: Free weights lose out over resistance machines here… The fact you need to stabilize the weight might be great for packing on more size but it’s not much use if you over-exert yourself and end up out of action for an extended spell. Free weights can also be rougher on your joints
  • Learning Curve: It will take time to learn proper technique so you won’t get up and running as rapidly if you’re just starting out
  • Spotter Required: There are some exercises with free weights which it’s neither safe nor practical to carry out without assistance

Resistance Machines

Beginners find resistance machines an easy point of entry into lifting heavier weights but how do these machines stack up for overall muscle building purposes?

Pros of Resistance Machines

  • Easy To Get Up and Running: The average resistance machine has a clear diagram showing how to use it prominently displayed. There’s not the same difficulty involved as mastering the sometimes complex movements required with free weights
  • Use Heavier Weights Safely When Working Out Alone: If you don’t have a training partner and prefer solo workouts, you’ll be able to lift more without needing a spotter and you’ll also have less chance of injury than pushing yourself with free weights
  • Great For Isolation Exercises: If your strength is already in place, you can laser in on the bigger muscle groups which is great for increasing size when you’ve got a great overall foundation already in place

Cons of Resistance Machines

  • Stress on The Body: While in many ways they are safer to use, resistance machines can also cause your body to contort itself into some weird positions that can end up stressing your joints or straining unwanted muscles. In turn, this leads to you taking time off from your training regime which is never good news
  • Fail to Target Smaller Stabilizing Muscles: The fact you isolate your chosen muscle group on a resistance machine comes at the cost of stabilizing muscles being passed over. This can ultimately lead to issues with posture and injury in the long term
  • Poor Form and Injury: While theoretically safer, a combination of overloading resistance machines and using poor form can lead to injury in just the same way as using free weights. Overuse injuries are also common due to repeatedly rehashing the same old movements

The Verdict

If we set personal preference aside and focus purely on the idea of building muscle, free weights are the most effective way to pile on some lean muscle and get stronger.

You can do more in less time and free weights are also easier and less expensive if you want a home gym without lashing out a fortune.

That said, once you’ve sufficiently boosted your strength and got somewhere near your target size, resistance machines certainly have their place for isolating and building specific muscle groups.

Machines also work well if you are not so experienced but want to try lifting heavier weights, especially alone, without the risk involved using free weights when you don’t know what you’re doing.

As with all aspects of working out, variety is key so why not go for the best of both worlds? Focus primarily on those free weights concentrating especially hard on proper form. Mix things up a little with judiciously chosen machines. That way, you can avoid boredom and keep those muscles guessing and growing.

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