Free Weights vs Machines

If it's your first time going to the gym, you might not know what section to visit first. Some people might tell you that free weights are king, while others might say that exercise machines are the best way to go. So, which one is it?

This is exactly but we're here to help you answer today, whether free weights or machines are better for you. We'll do an in-depth free weights versus machines comparison to see which one is more suitable for your needs and level of fitness.


What’s the Difference Between Free Weights and Machines?

Free Weights vs Machines

Before we can get to figuring out whether free weights or machines are right for you, it's important that you know the difference between them.

First we have free weights, which can include pieces of workout equipment such as dumbbells, barbells, EZcurl bars, kettlebells, and other such weights. As you can probably tell, they are called free weights because they aren't attached to anything such as a cable system, to pulleys, weight stacks, or anything else of the sort. They are completely free in terms of motion.

On the other hand, we have machines, which can include ones that have weight stacks, pulley systems, and more. The defining feature of a machine in a gym is that the motion is set. Machines are generally designed for one specific exercise and the motion is restricted. In other words, there is only one way in which you can move using these machines.

For instance, on a shoulder press machine, the only thing you can do is lift the handles up above your head. However, if you're using dumbbells, you can do shoulder presses with them, but there are also dozens of other exercises you can do as well.

The bottom line is that machines are fixed in place whereas free weights are not. This leads to another big difference, which is that machines generally focus on just one or two muscle groups, whereas with free weights, you can focus on many different muscle groups, depending on the exercise.


The Pros of Weight Machines

Free Weights vs Machines

There are quite a few advantages to using weight machines that you should know about.


They’re Safe

One of the biggest advantages of using weight machines at the gym is that they are relatively safe, especially when compared to the alternative. The weight is fixed to the equipment, there are usually always stoppers to keep you safe, and you don't have to balance anything either.

The restricted range of motion also ensures that you don't move in a wrong way. When it comes down to it, weight machines are just a lot safer to use, especially for beginners who might not have proper form yet.


They’re Simple

Something else to think about here is that weight machines are also just very simple to use. They are extremely user-friendly, they can really only move in one way, and they generally all come with directions right on them. This means that beginners can easily use weight machines without much question.

If you don't know what to do with the machine, just look at the illustration for instructions. Even the simple fact that these machines move in one specific way should also help you get started, because when it comes down to it, each machine is just designed for a single thing.


They Target Specific Muscles

The other big advantage of weight machines is that they are great for focusing on specific muscle groups. Once again, weight machines are generally designed to focus on one muscle group, sometimes two muscle groups at most. It's all about being able to isolate a specific muscle or muscle group, so you can really get the most out of your training, especially if you are isolating muscles.

There's also the fact that because you don't have to balance or keep anything stable, you can really focus on training that one specific muscle. For instance, if you do shoulder presses with dumbbells, you have to focus on keeping your body upright and balancing too, whereas with the machine all you have to do is focus on pressing the weight above your shoulders.


The Cons of Weight Machines

Of course, there are also drawbacks to weight machines, so let's take a look at what these might be.


Not Everyone Has Them

Yes, weight machines are present at the gym, but you probably won't have any at home. Weight machines are very expensive, they're large, and you probably don't have space for them. Therefore, if you are somebody who wants to work out at home, then you'll probably have to use free weights such as dumbbells and barbells.


They Only Work Certain Muscles

The other drawback with weight machines is that they only work certain muscles. Yes, this can of course be seen as both an advantage and a disadvantage. Some people like the fact that weight machines target very specific muscles, which is great for isolation.

However, other people don't like this, because they like more compound exercises that workout more than one muscle at once. 

At the same time, weight machines also don't really force you to use your stabilizer muscles, which means that you might not be getting quite as intense a workout as you could with three weights.


The Pros of Free Weights

Free Weights vs Machines

Let's now take a look at all of the advantages that you get with free weights.



One of the biggest benefits of free weights is that they are very accessible. Even though you might not have room for a full set of workout machines at home, you probably have room for a set of dumbbells or even a barbell. 

Free weights also aren't nearly as expensive to purchase as machines, which is also another benefit. If you want to build a home gym, it's a set of free weights that you need.



The next advantage that you get with free weights is that they're also very versatile. The reality is that the free range of motion that free weights provide you with allow you to perform many different exercises.

Once again, a weight machine is designed for one specific exercise, which means that there's versatility is involved. 

However, with nothing more than a single pair of dumbbells, you can easily work out virtually every muscle in your body. You can also perform a variety of combination movements that exercise more than one muscle at a time.


Targeting More Muscles

Not only are free weights better in terms of overall exercise variety, but also for targeting more muscles at once. Once again, with weight machines, you don't really need any stabilizer muscles, which means that you don't target as many muscles at once.

However, with free weights, whether we're talking about barbells or dumbbells, you have to use many different muscle groups, particularly your stabilizer muscles surrounding the main muscle group worked out, to perform the motion. This automatically means that you end up working more muscles at once.


The Cons of Free Weights

Just like there are advantages to using free weights, so are their disadvantages.


Possible Injuries

Weight machines keep you on a steady track and restrict your movement, which is great for beginners looking to avoid injury. However, free weights are a bit different, because you really have to know what you're doing. If you don't have the right form and aren't moving in the proper manner, you could end up hurting yourself.


They Require Knowledge

Related to the above point, the simple reality is that when using free weights, you have to know what you're doing. Every single exercise that you do with a free weight has a specific form and technique that you need to adhere to. If you fail to do so, not only do you increase your risk of injury, but you also won't target the muscles that you're aiming to target.


Who Should Use Free Weights?

If you're wondering if you should use free weights, if you already have some workout knowledge, you want to target many muscle groups at once, and you want a versatile piece of workout equipment, then free weights are best. 

This is especially the case if you want to target your stabilizer muscles along with your main muscle groups, while also being able to workout at home. Free weights don't take up nearly as much space and are therefore best for a home gym.


Who Should Use Weight Machines?

If you're a workout newbie and you don't have much knowledge, especially when it comes to proper form and technique, then you might want to start with weight machines. 

Weight machines restrict your movement and they keep your motion along a specific trajectory, which means that they effectively teach you how to do each exercise the proper way.

They're just a bit safer and easier to use, although you probably won't get the same quality of workout as with free weights.


Free Weights vs Machines – Rounding Up

Free Weights vs Machines

As you can see, there are some pretty big differences between weight machines and free weights that you need to be aware of. As long as you know what these differences are, you can make an informed decision between these two types of workout equipment, so you can choose the best one for you and your needs.

Author's Photo

William Parrett

Will, co-founder of Home Gym Supply, launched the company in 2019 after 15-years in the fitness industry. His expertise stems not only from his professional background but also from his athletic pursuits. A former competitor in the World Beauty Fitness & Fashion (WBFF) and a competitive rugby player, Will has always been dedicated to health and fitness.