Are Free Weights Better Than Weight Machines?

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There are plenty of great reasons to start strength training. From building muscle to promoting weight management to increasing bone density, and improving overall well-being, committing to a regular strength training routine is well worth the investment in your health.

To get fit, build strength, and increase your power and endurance, your options for a strength training program involve free weights and weight machines. Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells that can be used at home. Weight machines are usually found at the gym and range from the leg press to the cable bar and cable rower, and so on.

Whether you choose free weights or weight machines depends on your level of fitness and the results you're wanting to achieve. The American College of Sports Medicine states that "the choice to incorporate free weights or machines should be based on level of training status and familiarity with specific exercise movements as well as the primary training objective." While both of these weight lifting methods can help you build strength, there are some benefits and drawbacks to consider.

Benefits of Free Weights

Portable and easy to put away, free weights can be conveniently used at home. You will also find free weights in a range of different sizes at the gym. If you're looking to invest in equipment for personal use, free weights are far more cost-effective than weight machines. Free weights can also help to improve balance and coordination.

Range of Motion

Free weights are more versatile than weight machines because they allow for more variations in your range of motion. Free weights require balance, as they tend to promote more activity of the joint stabilizer muscles. You can perform a complete strength training routine tailored to your physical abilities with one or more dumbbells.

Build Muscle Faster

Research shows that free weights tend to build muscle faster because they activate more of your stabilizer muscles. They recruit more muscle groups and more muscle fibers than variable resistance machines, which tend to isolate only specific muscles.

Benefits of Weight Machines

Weight machines are either plate-loaded or pin-loaded. Plate-loaded machines use weighted plates that can be added or subtracted depending on how much resistance the user is wanting to work with. Pin-loaded machines include a stack of weights that can be changed by moving the pin up or down to increase or decrease resistance.

The most important factor for strength training with weight machines is safety. If you are new to strength training or are working out alone, variable resistance machines are your best bet. This way you can test your limits while still maintaining safety and control. If you add too much weight, you can simply release the weight and the resistance in the machine will return the weight stack to its starting position.

Suitable for All Levels

Weight machines can help you improve your form and efficiency by isolating a single muscle to build targeted strength. Machines are a viable option for serious weight trainers looking to push their limits on their own. But they're also beneficial for weight training novices, senior citizens, and recreational athletes since the weight can be adjusted based on an individual's level of fitness.

Physical Therapy

For injury rehabilitation, variable resistance machines are preferred over free weights. This is because they provide a controlled motion and isolate specific muscle groups. Isolation is important because many physical therapy patients need to target certain areas to heal and strengthen during their recovery.

Weight machines also allow the patient and therapist to track progress and provide objective feedback while increasing the protective participation of the healthy limb or muscle group.

Drawbacks of Free Weights

Despite the convenience factor, free weights can result in more injuries than weight machines due to a lack of coordination or technical skills. Learning proper form and technique is crucial for injury prevention.

May Require a Spotter

Careful instruction and training are necessary to master free weight lifting on your own. In many cases, free weights may require the assistance of a spotter if you take on too much weight. Use a spotter whenever one is available.

Drawbacks of Weight Machines

Weight machine equipment can be cost-prohibitive and take up more space in your home. Alternatively, access to weight machines requires a gym membership. And despite their accessibility for beginners, free weights do not use functional movement patterns, but rather, rely on a single movement pattern. This one-size-fits-all approach may not work for everyone depending on an individual's range of motion.

Limitations

Unlike free weights, weight machines do not recruit stabilizer muscles. They generally work fewer muscles than free weights. Because they isolate one muscle or a concentrated group of muscles, you'll have to use other weight machines to work other muscles that you're wanting to strengthen.

The Perfect Mix

Of course, there are benefits to using both free weights and weight machines as part of a fitness regimen. For instance, a balanced weight training program may incorporate free weights and machines on alternate training days.

To reap the benefits of muscle strength and joint stability, you might focus on free weights for some exercises and weight machines for others. The bottom line is that you should use the strength training equipment that suits your training needs and is also safe and convenient.

If you're fairly comfortable using free weights, it's possible you could experience greater strength gains than using weight machines. Ultimately, the right balance comes down to your personal preference.

A Word From Verywell

Depending on your health and fitness goals, you could benefit from using either free weights, weight machines, or a combination of both. One piece of equipment is not necessarily better than another. Regardless of what you choose, remember to listen to your body during any strength training exercises to avoid injury.

If you're using heavier free weights at the gym, be sure to ask someone to spot you. If you're just getting started, you might consider working one-on-one with a personal trainer who can help you develop a unique strength training program that's designed just for you.

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