T Nation

Machines vs. Free Weights


I just read the following on another fourm and wondered what y'all though of the post by the expert of the fourm:

Remember a good machine is designed to overcome the flaws in the equivalent free weight exercise.
Time and time again the argument of whether machines or free weights are better for building muscle rears its ugly head. The problem is there?s no reason to argue about them. They both can be used side by side, and to build muscle most effectively, they should be.

Any exercise you do with a free weight only has one line of resistance; straight down. This in itself causes inadequacies because of physics. Let?s take a shoulder press for example. You're moving the resistance upwards, but the lever (The upper arm) is moving upwards and inwards in a circular motion. So when you're in the bottom position (With your upper arm parallel to the floor) the distance between the fulcrum or pivot point (Shoulder joint) and the weight is much larger than when you are in the top position (Weight directly above the shoulder). As a result, the weight you're lifting gets "lighter" as you progress from bottom to top, and when you do reach the top, the weight is all but non-existent as the resistance is now travelling straight down the extended arm.

Most of today?s machines now have what's called Dynamic Variable Resistance, which will adjust the weight as you push up to follow the strength curve much closely. I.e. The resistance it applies at the bottom of the movement is less than the resistance at the top. So in our above example, the shoulder muscles are now under a constant and as near as dammit equal tension from the beginning of the movement, all the way through to the end. It doesn?t matter if your arms are bent to 90 degrees, or if they?re perfectly straight above your head, as long as the weight of the weight stack is not resting on the one below, that weight is providing resistance.

It basically comes down to picking the right tool for the job. If the job in hand is a shoulder press, then the shoulder press machine is designed specifically for that job and nothing else whereas a dumbbell is just a weight. If you needed to drill a hole in a wall, what would do the better job, a power drill or a corkscrew? Both would do the job, but a power drill is designed to drill holes in walls. Its sole design criteria is to put a hole in a wall in the most efficient manner. A corkscrew would also put a hole in a wall, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective or efficient.

Both free weights and machines are just tools, nothing more. Someone?s success or failure using each has nothing to do with the tool. If someone?s not getting the results they want from working with free weights or machines, the fault doesn't lie in the tool, the fault lies in the application, i.e. the overall routine and application of that routine.

The main issue people have with Machines is that of ?Stabiliser? muscles. By stabilisers, we?re talking about fixator muscles, as discussed earlier. The argument goes like this:

?By using a machine, the body parts not being worked are stabilized and the body parts that are the focus of the exercise are being guided through the path of movement by the machine.

If you perform a similar exercise with a Free Weight, it?s not only the muscles you?re focusing on doing the work, smaller ?Stabiliser? muscles are working to steady your body/the weight and guide it throughout the movement.?

There are a couple of places where this falls down. The first is the concept of ?Stabiliser? muscles. There's no such thing as a stabiliser muscle, only an agonist performing another job (To stabilise you, as explained in the section ?Agonists, Antagonists, Synergists, and Fixators?) at that point in time. For example: In a standing shoulder press, the lower back muscles work isometrically (Contracting statically) to stop you bending over backwards. However, you can work the lower back directly as an agonist, so you're not gaining anything by working these muscles isometrically in a shoulder press if your routine is designed to not neglect the smaller muscles.

Then you've got to take into account what if you don't want other muscles helping you do a movement? What if the situation means you want to isolate a muscle/muscle group as much as possible? In that respect, the machine has a distinct advantage over the free weight for the above reasons.

Now let?s have a look at machines anatomically. Machines "Force you" through a certain movement. Absolutely, that's what they're designed for! Anatomically, your muscles perform certain actions, and machines are designed to provide that action. If the machine doesn't "Fit" you when you do the movement, then (Cheap machines aside) the machine isn't set up properly, so the fault doesn't lie with the machine, it lies with the person using it, or more likely, the gym instructors for not properly showing them (Or knowing themselves) how to adjust all the seats, pads, and lever arms, etc.

On the other side of the coin, free weights are cheap and versatile. A decent set of free weights, a bench, and a power rack will set you back somewhere around the ?200-300 mark. A decent machine which will work just one part of your body will in most cases set you back a minimum of double that.

So in terms of accessibility and flexibility, free weights will always win, hands down. Of course, this doesn?t matter if you go to a gym that has a full complement of machines, but a gym with a couple of machines and no free weights will always be the most restrictive choice when up against a gym with no machines and only free weights.

So the whole free weights are better than machines, and vice versa argument is basically a specious one. Which one?s better depends on the situation and the application. Both are tools. Nothing more, nothing less.


I love workin' with free weights. I rarely work with machines.


Whoever wrote the post below is a little behind on their terminology for starters. The term "fixator" is not a valid term when referring to muscles. Further, when you say a muscle is a "stablizer," we're referring to a role the muscle plays, not a fixed category of muscle per se.

With all that said, I've yet to see a flaw in free weights that a machine managed to fix. In fact, what many people point out as flaws with free weights (such as the fact that free weights are constant resistance technology) are actually benefits.


Coach Staley
With all that said, I've yet to see a flaw in free weights that a machine managed to fix. In fact, what many people point out as flaws with free weights (such as the fact that free weights are constant resistance technology) are actually benefits.

Kinda reminds me of the ad for that odd device Shugart saw at a confrence. You know the one you place the stability ball in this contraption and it deals with all that pesky instability sitting on the ball alone creates.

Personally I dont use machines because I never seem to be able to adjust them so it feels right. The dumbell version always feels more "natural" and I enjoy it more.


How much of a benefit is this compared to free weights?

Except that even with "properly designed machines" (as the author calls them) can't isolate any single muscle. Isn't that right?

It might be semantics, I'm not sure, but I figured stabilizer was a valid term to describe muscles that controbute indirectly during exercise.

But isn't working the stabilizers a valuable benefit? Heck, isn't that one of the beauties of the compound lifts?

Once again, why negate such a benefit?

You may be able to isolate a muscle more, but is it worth it?

Yes, but generally not a movement that suits you.

Do such "properly designed" machines really exist? Can the Hammer Strength or Nautilus machines really be tweaked to suit anyone??


If one wants to avoid the unloading affect (I guess that's what you would call it?) that occurs at the top of a given motion, that just slap on some chains or bands. I also agree that the "stabalizer" arguement is kind of week. And, if the military press and and machine shoulder press are so comparable in terms of muscle building capabilities, then why not go with the free with version and gain the benefits of real strength.

Further more, a good performance in the free weight version of a movement will typically (I am tempted to say almost always) carry over to good performance on the machine version of the lift. My observation (which are limited to the 6 years that I have been training) has shown that the inverse is not necessarily true. For example a person who has a 500lb BS (and omits the machine versions), will usually fair pretty good in the the Smith machine version or the leg press.

However, someone with a 500lb leg press or smith machine squat (and omits the free weight version from their training), may not perform well at the free weight version.

IMHO, free weights can produce a look that I have yet to see duplicated by machine dominated training. A look of power, and, assuming proper training, a look of all around "completeness". I have yet to see a machine that can completely duplicate the effects of the C&J, C&P, Snatch, DL, OL Squat, PL Squat or Bench. It's like Dan John says "The body is one piece." It should be trained that way.

I'm not totally against machines. They can have their place, but the need to stay in their place. They shouldn't dominate one's training.


I love all machines. They keep the pencilnecks away from the free weights!

Seriously though, many machines have their place in training.

If someone wants to train predominantly with machines, good for them. If they are meeting their goals, even better.

Me? I'll stick to primarily free weights, with some machines in certain cases and for some variety.



Machines may theoretically have some advantages in terms of ability to fatigue specific targeted muscle units.

However, I think if you want to actually use the strength you gain in the real world, you'd better have experience handling the loads involved. The physics of weight is neither an advantage nor disadvantage, it is the nature of the world we live in.

Ignore the nature of the real world at your own peril...

So, in combination, perhaps. It's just one of the tools available to us.


I prefer to have them both available. But given a choice, it's free wieghts all the way. The only benifit to machines is that you can hyperload them with weight. You obvoiusly know the benifit for that. Also, they can be used as a finisher. A last blow out set with out the fear of weights cracking your skull open, should you hit failure unexpectedly.

For overall muscular strength and hypertrophy, it is pretty clear free wieghts are far better. Machines are a good compliment, but somebody who trains on machines only will not perform significantly better on the "field", or in daily life where strength is required. They may look a little better than the untrained version of themselves, but that is about it.

I think machines can be useful, but never be the coner stone of a training routine, that's just dumb.


I think we're really dealing with a faulty comparison. (I would use the old clche "apples and oranges", but if you think about it, both fruits are roundish, tree-born, juice-producers; they are comparable.)

Free weights are excellent for training the body as a whole, building strength. But, as with everything on this planet, they have their limits: how can you do a leg curl with free weights? How about a pressdown? the limitation of the free weight is that they only go up and down. Gravity sucks: ask fat people.

Machines offer safety and isolation. I can do standing calf at 900 pounds. How is that possible with free weights? Unless I have another spine installed, it's not. After a certain point, incline dumbbell presses become a chore just because of the whole operation of getting the large, clumsy bells balanced over you. The Hammer Strength machine (and I am assuming we're all talking about quality machines, not something your cousin Skippy welded together when he was under house arrest for kinapping that dog for the reward money) offers an excellent(and safe) alternative.

To the machines detriment, there is the fact that they are, in the end, just big toys and to truly become stronger, you must hoist large aounts of iron over your head.

So, to sum up:
Free weights-good and bad
Machines--good and bad


Well certain machines can perform exercises that cannot be performed easily with free weights. ie Reverse Hyper, GHR, Leg Curl. These are mostly for legs, the main reason being that we have hands so upper body exercises can use free weights, the lack of being able to hold a weight with the feet means there are some machines that cannot be performed with free weights.

Other than those examples listed above and perhaps the high and low pulleys I see no reason to use anything but free weights.


Machines can have a place in training, especially cable work. But I think most everybody if not everybody would benefit most from making free weights the cornerstone of their workouts.


The only machine I have ever found any use for is the is the calf raise anything else I stick to free weights or body weight.


well in the gym we have in our apartments, all we really have are machines, so not much of a choice there. but what i do is, like today.... ill do 5 reps of preacher curls on the machine, then run over and do 5 reps of ez barl curls with free weights, and so forth with other exercises. basically, i do one set on a machine, then one with free weights, and ive seen great improvements since i started lifting. so i dunno i guess it just depends.