Free Weights Or Machines – Which is Best?

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Going to a gym for the first time can be a rather confusing experience. Which equipment? Which machines? How many exercises? The choices are endless. Then there are the free weights – the dumbbells and barbells, squat and bench press racks. You can do the same exercises on both types of equipment. So weights or machines or have both?

There are three distinct types of equipment found in most gyms.

  •  Free weights, machines and cables/pulleys.

Free weights are:

  • Barbells, dumbbells, plates, squat rack and bench press.


  • Feature seats and provide variable resistance.
  • They force you to move along a pre-determined track dictated by the design of the machine.

Cables and pulleys

  • Allow you to change the direction of resistance that is not possible with a barbell or dumbbell.

Some gyms like Personal Best Fitness also have any array of functional exercise equipment such as kettlebells and vipr’s.

Machine Benefits & Limitations

A great benefit of machines – is that they are harder to use incorrectly. This is because they limit the ways you can push and pull on them. This allows beginners to train correct movement patterns and helps to prevent injury. These benefits can be offset by there being little need to recruit stabilizer muscles when doing the exercise. Stabilizer muscle recruitment is a key to developing functional strength – the ability to use the strength developed through exercise to perform everyday tasks.

To develop functional strength you need to do exercises that rely on your body to work as whole unit. Machines eliminate the need to recruit stabilizer muscles and, as a result, are not as effective at developing functional strength as free weights are. Machines have limitations in their adaptability to the height and body shape. Even though most of them have adjustable seats and handles, it is impossible to design a machine that suits every body type.

Machines are also not as multi-functional as free weights, and the frame of the machine also doesn’t allow for ideal exercise position for all body types.


Machines are great for teaching beginners good form and helping them to learn what it feels like to lift correctly. That’s because they generally ensure good technique. They’re also excellent for isolating individual muscles. But, unless you’re a beginner or are rehabbing, don’t build your routine around machines. Where possible, perform free weight versions of functional strength movements rather than the machine version: free weight squats, for example, are better than Smith machine squats. Use cables and pulleys rather than lat pull down or seated row.

If you would like some guidance as to which exercises are best for your body, ask us at Personal Best Fitness.

Written by Amanda Coombe, who is considered a national expert in lifestyle coaching and personal training having 5 times been a finalist in the Australian Personal Trainer of the Year award. She is the founder of Personal Best Fitness, Tasmania’s Fitness Business of the Year and is recognized as a leader in corporate health programs. Her corporate clients include Nyrstar, Tasmanian Collection Services, RACT, Hydro Tasmania, Norske Skog, Parliament House, Tasmanian Audit Office, SEMF and Tasmanian Fire Service.

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