Are free weights or machines better for building muscle?
A debate has been going on for a long time. Which training style is better - using free weights or working with machines.
To the uneducated, the clear winner might be the latter. After all, machines come in so many configurations, and we can use them for hundreds of exercises. Plus, they make it easier to perform exercises.
But, it’s not that simple. Free weight exercises offer many incredible benefits and have proven themselves over and over again.
An Often Overlooked Drawback of Machine Exercises
Consider what most exercises look like on a machine:
You’ve got a pre-determined path and range of motion. Sure, those things serve as ‘guidelines,’ and make it easier for a beginner to start exercising (it’s easier for someone to learn how to leg press than to squat with a barbell), but there’s also one massive drawback to it:
Rather than fitting the exercise to your specific anatomy (leverages and limb lengths and all that), you are forced to fit your anatomy to the exercise. It might not sound important, but remember that we are all different, and there is no one single textbook way to perform an activity.
A ‘proper’ squat or deadlift will look slightly different among a dozen men and women of different heights, body weights, and limb lengths. When using a barbell, you can quickly learn what proper form looks for you (torso angle, depth, bar path, etc.). But if you were constrained to a smith machine, for example, you’d have to overlook your anatomy and its strengths and weaknesses due to the fixed bar path.
These limitations not only make it more difficult to train effectively but also open the door for all sorts of injuries and aches down the road.
This major drawback of machine-based exercises is not all bad. After all, it hints at the many benefits of using free weights. Here are some of them:
1. Free weights are better able to improve total body balance and coordination.
Free weights, by definition, require much more stability and balance. That’s why it feels incredibly awkward when you first lie on a bench to press or get under a bar to squat.
But that awkwardness and difficulty force the body to improve at a grander scale - your stabilizing muscles develop, your mind-muscle connection improves, and you become much more coordinated and balanced.
2. Free weights more easily improve side-to-side muscle imbalances.
Many bi-lateral machines (where both sides of your body work simultaneously, such as the pec deck fly) do a great job of creating side-to-side imbalances.
When a beginner starts hitting the gym, they most likely have small side-to-side imbalances. In most cases, the dominant side of the body takes over and develops even further while the non-dominant side stays small and underdeveloped.
During the exercise, the more developed side takes over and does most of the work. This imbalance often leads to visual differences between the right and left side of the body, as well as physical impairments that promote poor movement patterns, which can lead to injuries.
An imbalance like that can more easily be fixed with dumbbell or kettlebell exercises because they force both sides of the body to work equally as hard and develop evenly.
3. There is a much higher sport-specific application.
Many free weight movements, particularly multi-joint ones, teach your body to use multiple muscle groups synergistically. That, in combination with the components of stability and balance, makes for a much higher sport-specific application.
And even if you’re not a sports player, it still means that free weight movements make you a more athletic individual.
Sure, doing a bunch of machine rows is better than nothing, but movements like the barbell row and deadlift are much more athletic and can directly improve your performance on many different physical activities.
None of this is to say that machine-based exercises are bad. They have their uses and might even be better than free weight movements in some situations.
But, for the average lifter who wants to make the most of their training, primarily doing exercises with free weights is much more beneficial.