What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Free Weights & Machines?

A trainer helps you execute free weight moves with proper form.
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Bodybuilders, muscle-heads and figure competitors are not the only people who should step out onto the weight room floor. Everyone can benefit from including strength training into their exercise routine. An effective weight-training program makes you look and feel healthy from the inside out. The type of weights you use depends largely on your goals, fitness and preference. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages offered by free weights and machine weights can help you create a strength routine that hones balance, boosts your metabolism and builds a better body.

Strength Training Benefits

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of two strength-training workouts per week to maintain good health and help you manage your weight. Strength training improves bone strength, helping to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. It also builds up your muscles and connective tissues, which naturally degenerate with age. From age 20 to 80, you lose about 30 percent of your muscle mass, especially if you fail to use it regularly, notes an article in a February 2010 issue of “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” When you lose muscle mass, it is harder to regulate your metabolism because fat tissue burns fewer calories than muscle. You may also lose the ability to do daily tasks; eventually, caring for yourself as you age becomes challenging. Building your muscles can also help you deal with chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, back pain and diabetes. Free weights and machines help you get all of these benefits of strength training.


For a new exerciser, machines are a safe way to get into weight training and can help you use proper form to learn a specific movement. Machines are also helpful to those nursing an injury because they allow you to isolate a specific muscle better than free weights can. Bodybuilders who look to sculpt a muscle from multiple angles also benefit from including machine lifts into some of their workouts. If you are in a hurry to get in and out of the gym, machines allow you to go quickly. All you do is make a simple adjustment, such as inserting a pin, to change the weight so it is right for your needs. However, machine weights often neglect the stabilizing muscles, which is less like real life movements in which you use your entire body to move objects through space. Machines usually don’t work multiple muscle groups at once. If you are outside the range of the average-size person, you may have trouble setting the machine up to fit your body.

Free Weights

Free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells, require you to use more than the primary muscle group targeted. In most exercises, you must use stabilizing muscles to heave the weights through space, which may result in greater muscle strength and power, notes the American Council on Exercise. The way free weights train your muscles is more applicable to real life situations. You rarely isolate a muscle group when moving furniture or playing soccer -- your entire body is involved. You can also change your grip or the position of your arms or legs while using free weights to target the muscles from different angles, ensuring a balanced approach to your strength training routine. Free weights are also less bulky than machines, so you can stash them in a closet or home gym. Using free weights requires more skill than using machines, so you may experience a learning curve. If you use weights too heavy for you, your risk of injury is greater, especially if you exercise without a spotter. Proper form is essential in making a free weight workout effective. You must avoid using momentum, and always work within a safe range of motion.


The American Council on Exercise recommends that beginners or people returning to exercise after a long hiatus train with machines for at least the first 10 to 12 weeks of a program. Your body can adjust to strength training and learn proper form. As you become more experienced, gradually augment your machine-based workouts with simple dumbbell and barbell exercises to create a well-rounded program. Before beginning a weight-training program, consult with your physician. If you are brand new to training, consult a fitness professional so you learn proper form and prevent injury.

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