Skip to content

Free Weights Versus MachinesOver the past several years, strength training has grown increasingly popular, as more information is being shared about its multiple benefits. Research continues to demonstrate how strength training improves muscle endurance and strength, boosts metabolism, creates a leaner look, enhances bone density, can reduce injuries, helps manage chronic conditions such as back pain and arthritis, raises body confidence, and more. Like other forms of exercise, it also can alleviate stress and fight depression.

Gone are the days when fitness professionals simply recommended long sessions of straight cardio exercise only. While cardiovascular activity certainly is necessary to fitness, it doesn’t offer all the same results that come from strength training. Some people do strength training to stay fit and lose weight or manage their weight, others aim for size/mass for appearance or bodybuilding and some lift weights to influence athletic performance.

Depending on your goals, experts recommend performing strength training 2-5 times weekly, targeting all the major muscle groups. The number of repetitions and sets will vary according to your objective, but a typical fitness routine incorporates 10-15 reps and 2-3 sets.

And strength training can be performed with a variety of modalities:  free weights (barbells, weight plates, dumbbells), kettlebells, selectorized machines, plate-loaded equipment, body weight and resistance bands and tubing. All have advantages and drawbacks, and one type isn’t necessarily inherently better than the others. Here we examine the different modalities to provide a comprehensive understanding of each, so you can add various ones to your routine.

Free Weights

Free weights refer to barbells, weight plates and dumbbells, along with kettlebells, which are a uniquely shaped dumbbell. They come in a variety of denominations, and, as the name implies, allow complete freedom of movement for exercises.

While not weights, per se, elastic bands and tubing add resistance to exercises for concentrated muscular training. We’re including them in the free weight category because they impose no restrictions but facilitate a variety of movements without preset paths of motion.

Advantages: What’s great about free weights is that they are incredibly versatile and can be used for many exercises, such as squats, lunges, chest press, overhead press, biceps curl and triceps kickbacks. Users can customize the challenge by using different weight denominations or resistance levels with elastic bands and tubing. And because the user controls the entire movement, not only are the major muscles working, but also the stabilizers, which can result in better overall strength and coordination. Plus, free weights provide more functional workouts by mimicking everyday single-joint and compound movements.

Free weights and resistance bands also are typically inexpensive, portable and space-efficient.

Drawbacks: For beginners, free weights can be hard to control to execute movements correctly, and coordination and technique must be learned. Exercisers can “cheat” by using momentum rather than drawing on strength. Furthermore, a safety risk exists if an individual lifts very heavy weights alone, without a spotter.


Strength training machines include:

  • Selectorized – These traditional machines have a weight stack and a pin to choose the weight lifted. Many also have seats and facilitate single-joint exercises, such as biceps curl or leg extension; however, some are designed for multi-joint movements such as leg press or overhead extension. Most have a fixed path of motion and are fairly intuitive to use, but others offer greater range with movements that are unilateral, bilateral, converging or diverging.

Advantages: Selectorized machines are ideal for beginners because they provide a fixed path of movement, widely adjustable weight ranges, support via a seat, and are easy to complete one machine after the next efficiently. They also are safe and isolate specific muscle groups, which can help with injury rehabilitation.

Drawbacks: Fixed path exercises with external support, such as a seat, don’t truly replicate real-life movements, and don’t recruit the stabilizer muscles. Therefore, results may be slower to appear. And heavy lifters may max out on the weight stack.

  • Cable and pulley systems – A variation of selectorized machines, cable and pulley systems incorporate an adjustable weight stack, but provide broader range of motion in various planes versus a traditional selectorized machines. While they provide the safety of a machine, they also offer more varied movement patterns like free weights.

Advantages: These machines come with various attachments, such as handles, bars and ankle cuffs, to facilitate multiple exercises. A user-defined path of motion enables exercisers to choose their movement path, work one limb at a time if preferred and recruit stabilizing muscles for standing exercise.

Drawbacks: Without proper instruction, cable and pulley units aren’t intuitive, and new users may not know what exercises to do. Furthermore, a free path of movement can result in improper technique or use of momentum to execute exercises.

  • Plate-loaded: These machines combine the use of free weights with the security of fixed paths. Instead of accessing a weight stack, users load weight plates on weight horns for movements such as hack squat, incline press, hamstring curl, calf raises and more. The movement path typically is fixed, but can include unilateral, bilateral, converging or diverging motions for greater variety and customization.

Advantages:  Plate-loaded is a good compromise between the total freedom of free weights and the restrictions of a selectorized machine. Motion can be smoother without a cable and pulley that moves a weight stack. Top loads are only restricted to the maximum number of plates that can be utilized on the machine.

Drawbacks: You must physically load and unload weight plates, which can slow your routine, particularly if you are using a lot of plates, and these machines can be intimidating for beginners.

  • Body weight: These suspension machines have straps (TRX) that exercisers can use to support a variety of body weight moves, such as squats, push-ups and planks. Adjustments can be made in the straps and the body positioning to accommodate beginners through elite exercisers. Routines vary, and some gyms provide classes, which deliver motivation and guidance.

Advantages: Suspension systems are newer, and thereby command interest and challenge the body differently. With proper instruction via a fitness professional, body weight systems are a fun way to mix up a traditional strength routine and achieve results. With complete freedom of motion, infinite variety exists.

Drawbacks: These machines are not intuitive and require proper instruction to execute workouts correctly and safely. They may not be suitable for beginners, who may lack the core strength and kinesthetic awareness to perform moves with precision and control.

Which to Choose?

The bottom line is that any strength training, performed correctly, is better than doing nothing at all. Although no one modality is perfect, they all tax the muscles for greater strength and endurance (and potentially size). While cross training with a variety of modalities leads to the best overall results, how you strength train depends on your access to different tools.

If you belong to a health club, take advantage of all the equipment, and consider hiring a trainer or joining a class to learn different exercises that can get you to your goals. If you work out at home, invest in a few free weights and resistance bands and online training programs to supplement your regimen. Do what you prefer, mix it up when you can and keep training consistently! Stay Fueled.