Strength Training With Free Weights

Woman lifting free weights

Erik Isakson / Getty Images

More and more top coaches and athletes are shying away from machine-based weight workouts and finding alternative training methods. Weight machines are expensive and require a gym membership, and are often ineffective training tools because they focus on isolation exercises. Relying exclusively on machines for strength training may actually limit sports performance and increase injury risk during your sports activity.

Using free weights is a great alternative to machines for building strength and fitness. Lifting weights increase muscle size, strength, power, and endurance. It also burns calories and increases bone density.

Free Weight Benefits

Using free weights is a good way to build functional strength—the sort of strength that mimics both sports-specific and real-life activities that use a variety of movements through a wide range of motion. The foundation of these functional fitness programs is a variety of compound exercises (multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time) that incorporate free weights and body weight exercises.

Another short-coming of weight machines is that they fail to adhere to the principle of specificity of training. You must train for the sport you play, and the best training activities mimic your sports movements. If you train on machines, you get good at lifting or pushing those weights on the machine. Does that translate to a better tennis serve or better hill climbing on a bike? Not necessarily.

Even if you aren't an athlete and simply want to feel better doing daily chores machines will only get you so far. The vast majority of daily tasks we do don't comply with the fixed movements of machines. Most of our daily tasks involve free weights. Groceries, books, furniture, lawn tools, and children are not fixed weights that only move in a certain direction after you get set up and 'strapped in' to your machine. You lift these items without the benefit of guides, rails or levers.

Free weights such as dumbbells and medicine balls are better training for sports and for life. We can create much more specificity of training by using free weights than machines. Machines build muscles that you use primarily in the gym.

Unlike weight machines, free weights don’t restrict movement. This is great for building strength, but it also increases the risk of injury while lifting weights. Safety precautions include getting a bit of instruction in proper form and lifting technique. Most free weight accidents happen when a weight falls while picking up or replacing free weights to the racks.

Another benefit of training with free weights is that you will develop better balance. Machines require no balance at all—you sit down, strap yourself in, and push. Balance training is an essential part of all sports and is extremely important for graceful aging.

Tips for Using Free Weights

Use these guidelines to use free weights effectively at home or at the gym.

  • Avoid hyperextension in the spine while lifting.
  • Breathe throughout each lift, and don't hold your breath.
  • Exercise all sides of the body—right and left and front and back. 
  • Get instruction from a qualified trainer to learn the proper technique for each exercise done with free weights.
  • Keep your head up, and maintain a straight spine, when lifting.
  • Lift in a slow, controlled manner. Don't use momentum to move the weights.
  • Lift the weights through a full range of motion when performing each exercise.
  • When lifting very heavy weights, use a spotter for safety.

When to Use Machines

Machines do have a place in rehab and training, when muscle isolation, or the ability to control movement speed, direction and intensity is desired. Machines are also useful for novice exercisers who may need a very structured program of movement to build some very basic strength.

Machines can also have a role in 'bulking' up the body with muscle for unspecified strength. Obviously, bodybuilders will want as much muscle as possible and aren't as concerned with how that muscle performs precise, athletes movements. But functional training should be the core of a fitness program for anyone who wants to develop strength, skill, agility, and balance for sports (and life) outside the gym

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Fleck, S.J., and W.J. Kraemer. Designing Resistance Training Programs. (2004).

  • Kraemer, W.J. Strength Training Basics: Designing Workouts to Meet Patients' Goals. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 2003, 31(8), n.p.

  • Kraemer WJ, et al. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Feb;34(2):364-80.

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.