When I first started lifting, I used the machines at my local YMCA. I didn’t know how to lift, what good form looked like, or how to progress a program.
I got little in the way of results, but it was a start. Over time, I started picking up other exercises: dumbbell bicep curls and tricep extensions, lateral raises, a barbell bench press, squats, pushups, dips. My results improved a little, but not much.
I started getting smarter about my training. I put together a good program for the first time and got into bodybuilding. Then I got into strength, and started training as a powerlifter.
The more I learned, the more I was told not to use machines. Free weights are better, I heard. They mean more strength, more muscle, and greater emphasis on “stabilizer” muscles. Avoid the machines, avoid the smith machine, and avoid isolation exercises.
This made sense. After all, I had been using machines entirely during the worst parts of my own training. The story added up, clearly the machines were at fault.
Later, I got more and more confused by a lot of the stuff I see from elite level athletes, including bodybuilders, strongmen, olympic weightlifters, and more - I saw them taking videos of themselves using machines!
Zydrunas Savickas, one of the strongest men in the world, is known for really liking smith machine shoulder presses. Dorian Yates, one of the best modern bodybuilders, was known for hating squats and focusing on machine-based leg exercises, and his legs sure got huge all the same.
These are just a few of the examples, if you know where to look. It became clear that maybe ‘no machines’ wasn’t as simple as I thought.
For a while, I argued to myself that some machines are better than others. I hated abdominal machines, leg press machines, lower back machines, smith machines, chest press machines, glute adductor/abductor machines, and shoulder press machines. I defended lat pull downs, machine rows, leg extensions, leg curls, and arm machines. I had half-baked reasons for each, but a lot of that went out the window when I would see huge, jacked dudes seeming to completely ignore these rules in their own training.
The things that huge jacked dudes do aren’t necessarily a good argument - they’re not proof that what they’re doing is good training, but at the very least it seemed not to be bad training.
Are free weights better for building strength and muscle? Well, the answer (like so many in fitness) is that it depends.
The reason that I wasn’t building much muscle or strength when I started lifting wasn't that I was using machines - just that I wasn’t following a smart program. I never tracked how much work I did, and I didn't progress my training. If you're not progressing your training, you won't be able to see results no matter whether you're using machines or free weights.
At the same time, free weights are generally a little bit better for building muscle and strength. This is because of specificity - machines tend to make us move weights through predefined paths. When you try to lift free weights without those “paths” to guide you, you just can’t handle as much weight. It’s an entirely different skill. So, you can still build muscle (progressive overload) but you can’t really build as much strength since the movements are less specific to the kind of strength seen in most environments.
If you’re training specifically for strength, free weights are a must. That being said, there’s probably less difference between free weights and machines than most people think. Bret Contreras has written a lot on the subject, and is currently undergoing a phase of all-machine training to see what impacts it has on his strength and physique.
All existing strength competitions rely on free weights, so if you’re training for strength, free weights are the natural choice - it’s simply a matter of training for your goals. But what happens if you’re just training for muscle? Or if you’re training to be more competitive at a non-lifting sport?
In bodybuilding, there are no strength requirements - all you have to do is build muscle. In this case, machines can be just as effective if not more. Machines can isolate and stress certain muscles or movements more efficiently than their free weight counterparts.
A leg extension or leg press, for example, stresses the quads without needing to put stress on the back (like you do in squatting or lunging) making it easier to recover from overall while still keeping muscle activation of the intended muscle group high. You may not be stressing as much overall musculature, but you're also keeping recovery needs down, making it easier to combine that exercise with other work for the lower body in a weekly program.
In field sports, it’s usually impossible to train with a lot of specificity. At almost no point on a football field, for example, will you encounter a movement exactly similar to a bench press. But, building muscle in the chest will help you on the field all the same, because that muscle can be used for other (less specific) things. So, like with bodybuilding, it’s okay to use machines since you’re mainly just looking to build muscle anyway.
One serious issue is that it’s hard for machines to effectively target certain movements - for example, machines which are good at teaching and training the hip hinge pattern are less common, unless your gym happens to have one of the rarer parallel handle deadlift machines. At the same time, as I've mentioned, they're more effective at targeting other movements, so it's definitely a mixed bag.
So what are the positives and negatives of each?
Easy to learn and require little experience.
A bit safer for some movements since range of motion is limited and it’s harder to drop a weight on yourself.
Easy and quick to change weights.
Just fine for building muscle.
Some machines are more effective at isolating certain muscle groups.
More variety is a good thing.
Strength built on machines is less specific to free weight and real-world exercises, making them less useful if the goal is strength.
Machines don't activate stabilizing musculature as fully, leading to slightly less muscle activation when building muscle and greater instability if switching over to free weight exercises later. At the same time, this isn't a huge issue, and is overcome either by training with a combo of both machines and free weights, or switching over to free weights later.
Limited range of motion on some exercises will limit growth potential and make building muscle harder.
Some machines target certain muscle groups ineffectively, giving you less results for your time.
Certain free weight movements teach bad movement patterns which may need to be unlearned later.
Activate musculature more fully, leading to a bit more muscle built.
Strength built on free weights transfers over more easily to real world and strength sport applications.
Harder to learn and take more time to master good form.
Use of a barbell requires a base level of strength which may require training to achieve, if starting out as a complete beginner. Luckily, it usually doesn't take too long to train enough strength to use an empty barbell.
Don't easily stress certain muscle groups, making it harder to perform isolation exercises for building muscle.
Risk of injury from dropping weights on yourself or getting pinned under the bench press - don’t let what you love kill you!
Takes longer to change the weight on a barbell, though dumbbells can still be easily swapped.
So which is better? Of course, the answer is neither. A good exerciser mixes and matches methods to find an approach that works best.
Interestingly, some of the weaknesses of using just one or the other can be very easily avoided simply by using both together within the same training cycle.
A leg press isn't a great leg exercise on its own, but in the context of a program where you're also squatting, deadlifting, and using other lower body exercises, it can be a great addition. Likewise, a squat is a great lower body exercise, but it's still better to add in other exercises to stress the lower body with more variety.
Using a combo of machine and free weight exercises allows you to stress the muscles in a variety of unique ways and train movements more completely, leading to greater overall development.
If you were to use only machines or only free weights, this would cause problems. In such a scenario, I think that free weights would have a bit of an edge over machines.
Above all, remember that what causes progress is not necessarily the exercises you use, but the ability to stick to those exercises and progress the difficulty over time. So long as you’re progressing, you’re improving.
In the end, arguing about whether machines or free weights is better misses the point. It's better to use both together for maximum results.
Machines are commonly considered inferior, and there’s some research to support this. However, they’re probably not as inferior as you think.
Machines are not specific to real world application, so you can’t build as much strength with them.
Machines can build muscle without issue, so long as progressive overload is applied.
Sometimes machine exercises are more useful, and sometimes free weight exercises are more useful - it depends on your goals. We can’t make any blanket recommendations based solely on general “types” of exercises.
Some combo of both is generally more effective, since this can allow you to overcome the individual weaknesses of using one or the other alone.
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