Free-Weights vs. Machines

gym equipement

Which one is better for building muscle? Machines or free-weights? This is probably one of the most debated topics among gym-goers.

When entering a gym, most people immediately go straight to the exercise machines such as the chest press and cable curls. Then there are the few that stick with the free weights — the bench press, squats, dead-lifts, etc.

The debate on whether free-weights or machines are better for building muscle has been around for ages. At one stage, not too long ago, almost everyone in the gym used machines to train. There were many different, fancy machines being designed and produced, and most people believed these were more effective at building muscle. It wasn't long before people started to realize that although machines were good for building muscle and increasing strength, they lacked the ability to activate core and stabilizing muscles.

What Are Free-Weights?

A free-weight is best described as an object that can be moved around freely. Free-weights in the gym would usually consist of:

  • Dumbbells
  • Barbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Pulley systems

When using any of the free-weights mentioned above, you can do many different exercises, targeting any muscle in the body. With free-weights, your body has to use a number of different muscles to help stabilize the weight as your raise and lower it. For example, when doing a bench press, the primary muscle used are the pecs (chest). However, the core muscles, back, and deltoids (shoulders) are all activated to assist with the exercise.

Free-weight exercises also allow you to mimic actual real life movements. This is a great way to build functional strength. For example a dead-lift. This is the exact type of movement you would do when picking up a heavy object such as a couch or box off the floor.

What Are Exercise Machines?

Exercise machines restrict your movement and only allow you to perform an exercise in a specific way without activating any stabilizer muscles. Exercise machines are also non-functional, meaning they don't allow you to train with complete real life movement patterns.

There are however benefits with using machines, one being that it is easier to target a particular muscle. When using free-weights, you need to make sure you use perfect form in order to activate and target the right muscles. When using a machine, because the movement is restricted, it makes it much easier to target the right muscles.

Which One Is better?

Free-weights cause more muscle damage, which is essential to build more muscle. When you exercise and cause damage to the muscles, the body needs to repair and replace the damaged muscle fibers. Your body also needs to try and prevent this type of damage from happening again in the future. How does it do this? By building more muscle than you had before!

If your goal is to pack on as much muscle as possible and get as strong as an ox, then free-weights are the better option. If your goal is to lose weight and define your muscles, then machines will be sufficient.

If you are new to the gym, I would suggest starting with machines until you build up your strength a bit and learn how to use proper form. When using free-weights, proper form is of the utmost importance for many reasons. Without proper form, you will not see good results, and more importantly, you risk injury.

Mix It Up!

If your goal is to build muscle, you don't necessarily need to only use free-weights. Mix it up a bit. You should mainly do free-weights, but there is nothing wrong with using a machine here and there. Towards the end of a heavy weight-lifting session, you will find it becomes harder and harder to use proper form with free-weights, and so, finishing off your workout on a machine may not be a bad idea.