Weights or Machines?

Whether you use machines (eg. Cybex, Nautilus) or free weights (eg. barbells, dumbbells) or you simply use resistance bands in your strength training routine, you can benefit from any one of these modalities as long as your exercise is regularly performed. The most common question from beginning exercisers is: "What are better – machines or weights?"


According to many "muscle heads", free weights are better than machines in getting stronger and more toned. Well it’s not by chance that these individuals are called "muscle heads". It is important to realize that there are benefits to each type of training method and similar benefits can be experienced through the use of either. To increase your muscle tone, strength and lean body mass; to burn calories; and to improve your physical abilities – machines and free weights fare the same.

1. Dictate form
2. Provide resistance through a complete range of motion
3. Offer variable resistance through the use of cams or constant resistance with pulleys
4. Easy, fast set-up; no need for spotters
5. Isolates muscles and muscle groups
6. Aerobic conditioning more eas-ily facilitated

1. Incorporate the need for balance
2. Include the use of assisting (stabilizing) muscles
3. More versatile
4. Less expensive
5. Better duplicates play "on the field"
6. Resemble most strength-testing procedures
Some exercises that are performed with machines cannot be duplicated with a single exercise performed with free weights. For example, Pullovers for your back and shoulders and Lateral Raises for your shoulders each offers resistance at the beginning of the movement as well as when your muscles are in the fully contracted position. However, free weight exercises like Squats for your upper legs, Overhead Presses for your shoulders and Deadlifts for your back are productive exercises using barbells or dumbbells. Although much of the selection is personal choice, some exercises are better performed through specific methods.
If your muscular strength (for sport or rehab purposes) is going to be tested by machines, it is better that you work with machines. The same holds true for free weights. Since many competitive sports programs test athletes at the beginning of a season of play with free weights, the skill of the exercises must be trained in order to accurately asses your tested strength.

It is vital however, to understand that identical guidelines (principles and procedures) must be followed when properly performing strength-training exercise with either type of training. The speed of movement, the number of repetitions and sets and the full range of motion are only a few of the guidelines that remain consistent with machine and free weight exercise.

From past experience, I find it ideal but not essential, to begin your strength training on machines then if the interest is present, begin the use of free weights within 3 to 6 weeks. This approach helps you to safely get accustomed to the proper speed and movements required for functional resistance exercise in absence of a need for a high degree of skill. However, the use of machines can give you all you need, depending on your goals. And though many individuals have no wish to indulge in the iron game via free barbells and dumbbells – that’s ok. Benefits can and will be achieved with machines. To others, free weights offer the variety needed to be motivated to continue strength training exercise.

Good Luck in your quest for Health & Fitness.
– John S. Comereski



These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.