Which Is Best: Machines, Free Weights, or Body Weight?

If you're hitting the gym for the first time or are tempted to venture off the cardio equipment, it can be hard to know which piece of strength equipment to choose. Dumbbell, barbell, machine, or mat? Get-Fit Guy Brock Armstrong helps you make an informed decision that's right for you. 

Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #423


Weight machines use gravity as the primary source of resistance, and simple parts like pulleys, wheels, levers, and inclines to change the relative weight. A machine exercise works your body part(s) on a fixed path with the weight being stabilized by the machine for you. So, rather than holding the weight to move it from point A to point B (like free weights), you hold handles that are attached to the weight. Most often you are holding handles that then use cables and pulleys to lift weighted plates off a stack of more weights.

Common examples: machine press, machine row, leg extension/curl, assisted pull-up/dips, and the good old leg press machine.

The pros:

Machines are good for beginners due to the fact that your range of motion on them is inherently limited.

Because of this limited range of motion, machines are helpful for focusing on and building specific muscle groups.

They are a safe way to lift heavier weights than you might lift using free weights (even with a hefty spotter at your side).

They can be useful for exercising while you are injured or recovering from injury.

There is less risk of injury compared to free weight or body weight exercises.

The cons:

If you work out in a commercial gym (especially at peak hours) the machines can be hard to come by.

If you don’t adjust the machine to suit your body size and type, it can put you in an unnatural body position.

This is the least functional type of exercise. You are developing strength that can applied to real life but you are not practicing a movement that is applicable to real life.

Your movement is stabilized by the machine, not by you, so you are missing out on the potential side benefits.

Most of us don’t have space or the money to own these pieces of equipment so we are relegated to using them in a gym setting.

Although they will make you big and strong, they don’t train complete human movement patterns.

Which Is Best?

Body weight, free weights and machines all have their uses, but if I had to choose between them, I would generally opt for the free weights simply because you can work more muscles with each exercise. Also because the movements themselves apply directly to real life.

That being said, machines also have their place in my strength training plan. They are perfect for isolating specific muscle groups, doing things like drop-sets, or if you are recovering from an injury. They are also great from beginners who are looking for a way to prepare themselves to safely transition to free weights.

And of course where would we be without body weight exercises? Not only can they be done pretty much anywhere and anytime but they are versatile, adaptable, functional, and allow us to be creative with our workouts. There is pretty much only one or two ways to use a machine, and only a few more ways to safely use a barbell, but when it comes to body weight exercises, it truly is play time!

Exercise shouldn’t feel like medicine that you have to endure to be healthy—it should also be fun.

Here is the way I break it down:

  • Use body weight to get stronger, more agile, and mobile by doing movements we use on a regular basis.

  • Use free weights to build strength quickly and effectively.

  • Use machines to build muscle in specific areas of your body (or recover from injury).

Finally, remember that the type of strength training you choose should always be based on your current fitness level, what your goals are, and also what you enjoy. Exercise shouldn’t feel like medicine that you have to endure to be healthy—it should also be fun.

For more info, tips, and to join the conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy, twitter.com/getfitguy or BrockArmstrong.com.

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Weight room photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.