Free weights vs resistance machines

Many gyms and health clubs *should* have a wide selection of both free weights and resistance machines, allowing their members to develop a foundation of strength and muscle endurance through a wide variety of movements and techniques.

But when placed under the microscope, which is better, using free weights to develop muscle size, tone or shape or resistance machines?

Free weights or resistance machines?

To best answer this question it is a good idea to discuss the pros and cons of bothe free weights and resistance machines. The following article will aim to do just that.

Free weights

Research shows that free weights promote quicker gains in muscle strength because the balance and co-ordination required to perform free weight movements recruits more muscle fibres than when the *same* movement is performed using resistance machines.

Free weights are also more verstile, limiting the exerciser by their imagination only. The aim when using free weights or resistance machines is to  move the body's muscles through a wide range of motion. Free weights allow the exerciser to do that because they allow the user to move in the most natural way for their own body shape, regardless of whether they are 5"11 or 6"10.

Finally free weights are relatively inexpensive compared to resistance machines because apart from needing a variety of plate sizes and weights, the exerciser can perform 95% of free weight movements using only a barbell, a set of dumbbells and a simple exercise bench. Resistance machines on the other hand usually only allow the exerciser to perform a limited number of exercises (sometimes only one) on a single piece of expensive equipment.

Resistance machines

Using resistance machines allow the exerciser (both novice and more advanced exerciser) to perform a wide variety of exercises in relative saftey. Many free weight movements (any sort of barbell bench press and squat for example) require the exerciser to be 'spotted' by a friend or fellow gym user in order to perform the exercise to failure (the point at which the muscles can no longer perform the movement correctly - and essential for muscle growth to occur). Resistance machines have no such problems as the exerciser can always lower the machine stack back to the starting point without fuss.

Resistance machines also don't require stablizing muscles and co-ordination to play a major role during exercise performance. This means beginners and people under rehabilation can exercise, safe in the knowledge that weak joints, tendons and stablizing muscles won't 'give out' before their major muscles do.

In many good gyms and health clubs there is a wide variety of resistance machines. In fact in most gyms there will be a resistance machine that directly mirrors (almost) the very best free weight movements. Below is a small list of resistance machines and its free weights counterpart.

  • Machine press = Bench press
  • Pec dec = Flyes
  • Leg press = Squat
  • Hack squat = Squat
  • Lat pull down = Pull ups
  • Machine row = Bent over rows
  • Smith machine = Squats, bench press, inlcine press, deadlift, bent over rows etc

So, free weights or resistance machines?

I think we have answered that already. You should use both! The very best exercise programmes include as much variety as possible, allowing you to push your muscles to new heights in strength, power and tone. This means in any one session you could, and should, use a variety of free weights and a variety of resistance machines.

Also, before deciding whether to use free weights or resistance machines consider your exercise goals. If you are coming back from injury or you are just starting out stick to resistance machines until your major muscles have developed a solid foundation of strength. If you are an advanced exerciser and you are looking for a chance simple perform a routine on resistance machines one day and using free weights the next.

Also, when designing an exercise programme to develop muscle strength, remember that free weights do require strong stablizing muscles, balance and co-ordination. So if you are looking to before free weight movements and resistance machines within the same workout it is often best to perform free weight exercises before using resistance machines. Otherwise you may find that it is your co-ordination etc that fails before your muscles do when performing free weight exercises.

Below is an example of an upper body workout that does just that.


  • Barbell bench press
  • Incline dumbbell press
  • Pec dec


  • Pull ups
  • Bent over rows
  • Lat pull downs


  • Shoulder press
  • Cable upright rowing


  • Close grip bench press
  • Tricep press downs
  • Barbell curls
  • Cable curls

Useful links
Exercise video demos - Free weights and resistance machines
Rest periods

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