Pros & Cons: Free Weights vs. Machines


There is a debate in the world of health and fitness that has been going on for countless years.

What is the most effective way to train – using free weights, or machines?

Which method is the best for building muscle, burning fat, improving your health and increasing your athletic performance?

In this article we’ll take a quick look at the pros and cons of each approach, so you can make a more informed decision.

Free weights  

barbells and dumbbells perpendicular to each other

Just to clarify, free weights include any equipment that is freestanding, or not attached to an anchor point. That includes dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and more recently, clubbells.

The pros

  • Free weights are versatile. You can perform a wide range of exercises, keeping your body guessing and challenging it in different ways.
  • They are functional, meaning they can be used to perform natural, compound movement patterns that translate to the real world.
  • Free weights allow you to express full range of motion through the joints, activating stabilising muscles and reducing injury risk (when used correctly).

The cons

  • Free weights can be a little daunting for beginners. Movements may seem a little complex, and this can sometimes be off-putting.
  • Some of the more effective exercises (squat, bench press, etc) often require you to have a spotter in order to make progress safely.
  • Because of the complexity of the movements, free weight exercises are easy to mess up, which can sometimes result in injury.


Set of treadmills staying in line in the gym

These are the bulky pieces of equipment that usually take up the most of the gym floor. They include machines with a set range of motion (e.g the chest press machine) and those with cable attachments.

The pros

  • They’re beginner friendly – most machines are pretty easy to use and come with instructions.
  • Usually you don’t need a spotter to train safely.
  • Using machines, it can sometimes be easier to isolate certain muscle groups if necessary in your training plan.

The cons

  • Many machines do not allow you to express full range of motion around the joints. This may encourage faulty movement patterns and increase your injury risk.
  • Moving a weight through one plane could be described as unnatural – you are not required to activate many stabilising muscles. It could be argued that this strength doesn’t translate to the real world.
  • Weight machines are usually pretty busy during peak hours, and much more expensive than free weights if you want to get your own.

In summary

In short, which equipment you use really depends on your experience level, and on your goals.

That being said, whilst machines can be great for beginners and will still give you a good workout, if you’re really looking to maximise your strength gains and increase your athletic performance, free weights will probably give you your best bang for your buck.

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