pic: Are free-weights always better than machines? pic from cybexintl.com
Are free-weights always better than machines? pic from cybexintl.com

This is the first article in a 4-part series on using lifting machines.  This is part one and next week I’ll share part 2, then part 3.  And then in part 4, I’ll share what the science says about all this.

You’ve heard me, and many other online fitness guys, really blast the use of fixed-path machines.  And for good reason – I stand solidly behind the premise that free-weights are better than fixed-path machines in almost every case.  That’s why I use free weights for the majority of my muscle building programs.

But, like any rule or scientific study, there are exceptions.

First off note that I’m using the phrase “fixed-path machine”.  What does this mean?

Well, for one it does NOT mean the newer cable machines.  The newest cable machines don’t require a fixed path – you can move however you want and the cable simply provides the connection to the resistance.  (I could make the argument that cable exercises are in fact the best bang-for-the-buck possible, but that would be another article…)

I categorize fixed-path machines into two buckets:

Selectorized Lifting Machine - pic from cybexintl.com
Selectorized Lifting Machine – pic from cybexintl.com

a)       Selectorized – Machines where there is a stack of weights built into the machine and you select the weight with a pin (see picture).  In these, the bars are connected to the apparatus and usually both arms or legs move together (non-independent).  For example, the old-school Universal Machines, the early Nautilus machines, most of the Body Solid line, some of the Cybex line, etc.  Usually all these machines are in their own section at the gym and most involve sitting.

b)       Plate Loaded – Weight machines where you manually load free-weight plates onto a machine that still follows a fixed path; these are fake free weights, and just because you are loading 45 pound plates onto it doesn’t mean you are doing free weights!  For example the Smith Machine, leg press machines, many of the Cybex line.  One improvement these often have over the Selectorized machines is that each limb moves independently (at least for upper body exercises – see picture). These are usually integrated into the free-weight section of your gym.

Plate-loaded Weight Machine - pic from cybexintl.com
Plate-loaded Weight Machine – pic from cybexintl.com

Keep in mind though, that there are so many different “machines” out there, and every generation of machine is better than the first.  It’s really hard to do a direct comparison, but I’ll try anyway since you are a LeanLifter (smile).

Why Free Weights

Let’s start with a summary on why free-weights are generally better than machines:

–          Free-weights allow you to follow a more natural motion path; translates into more real-world situations

–          Free weights give you a fuller range of motion, thus recruiting more muscle fibers

–          Use more muscles per exercise (essentially they are more compound movements); especially relevant for smaller supporting muscles

–          Using freeweights uses more of your core for stability, which promotes overall body strength and safety (not to mention better abs!)

–          Free weights are one-size-fits all whereas machines are designed for the average man (in terms of dimensions, limb length, etc.); though machines keep getting better in terms of the options for adjusting

–          Freeweights could be considered safer, in the sense that once you master good form, you aren’t fighting against the ergonomics (in other words, if you are 6 foot 6 inches, and the machine was designed for a 5 foot 11 guy, then even if you adjust the seat/bar/etc you are still going to have a path of motion that could put stress on your joints); however, I cannot find any scientific evidence to back up this popular claim; science aside, I’ll make this claim:

  • free weights have a greater risk for traumatic injury [like dropping the bar on your head], while machines have a greater risk for long-term, repetitive injury [like knee strains]

–          Because (generally) free weights use more muscles per exercise, the metabolic effect is greater; this means more natural growth hormones released and more overall calories burned (you get bigger and leaner for the same amount of perceived effort).

–          More flexibility in terms of speed and force production; difficult to develop “power” on machines.

–          Freeweights (particularly with dumbbells) allow you to do unilateral movements (single sided); this is critical for correcting imbalances (one side weaker than the other or one side having a limited range of motion compared to the other); plus this further mimics real life and improves balance and core strength

–          Cheaper, which is really important for home gyms

–          Allow for huge variations in strength across various users

–          If you are like most Americans, you already spend all day sitting.  So why get to the gym and sit more, this time in a machine?

Do Free Weights Have Disadvantages?

Yes, there are some disadvantages of free weights:

–          The resistance is solely in the direction of gravity (downward) making the resistance vary according to the angle your arm, leg, or body makes with the ground

–          Take a bit longer to set up before each set (loading and deloading plates) (so they aren’t as practical for circuit training, though a good set of dumbbells should work)

Note that my opinion differs from others in that I do NOT view “may require a spotter” as a disadvantage of free weights.  I NEVER recommend using machines when you want to try really heavy weight but don’t have a spotter.  I think it’s ridiculous to do max weight on a fixed path machine.  So, if you are experienced and able to use proper form, and then want to try really heavy weight, free weights actually have an advantage especially when you can use a good spotter to save you from injury.


We’ll explore more about the science involved and what research shows (to validate the above claims) in part 4.

Now what about machines? Are there cases where they have advantages?  Yes, and we’ll explore that next week.

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