Free weights and weight machines are two categories of exercise equipment commonly used for weight training. While some people may prefer one piece of equipment over the other, the truth is that both can be beneficial.
But before you try one or the other, it is advised that you know the advantages and disadvantages of each method so that you work out effectively and avoid injury.
A free weight is defined as any weight that is not attached to a fixed apparatus. Dumbbells, barbells, and an Olympic bar, either with or without weights attached, are common examples of a free weight. A bench press is also considered a free weight so long as it is not attached to an apparatus. On the other hand weight machines generally fall into categories of stack machines or plate-loaded machines, where weights are lifted via a cable or as a direct result of your pressure.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Free Weights
If you are someone who prefers to work out at home instead of at the gym, free weights are probably the way to go. Having a home gym with just a few key free weights is relatively inexpensive and a good way to experiment with different styles of resistance training.
Another benefit of free weights is that they simulate real-life situations more closely than weight machines. It is not often, if ever, you will find yourself seated and pushing hundreds of pounds with your lower body, but such is the design of a very common leg press. On the other hand, a deadlift very much simulates the everyday action of lifting heavy objects, something some of us admittedly do more often than others.
Another way free weights benefit everyday life is by incorporating stabilizing and supporting muscles with each movement. These smaller muscle groups become engaged with free weight exercises because there is no cord or sled to guide the weight, so your body must do that work. Stabilizing and supporting muscles generally don’t have exercises focused on them, but nonetheless these are muscles we use in everyday situations like walking, sitting, reaching, and bending over.
But free weights aren’t without their disadvantages. There can be a steep learning curve to exercises involving free weights. It is even more likely to suffer injury using a free weight than a machine apparatus. Without a spotter, some of the heavier free weights are simply not safe at all for anyone who is not highly experienced. In general, when using free weights it is much better to be safe than sorry.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Weight Machines
One of the main advantages of weight machines is their accessibility and easiness to use. In just about any gym environment, there are a bevy of weight machines available. Typically there will be step-by-step instructions on how to use them. If you are lucky, a staff member may be on hand, or another patron, to help you on your way. Weight machines are designed so it is easy to start at a beginner’s level before building up to a more challenging level.
Another benefit of weight machines is they target specific muscle groups. If you want to develop a particular set of large muscle groups, weight machines might be the choice for you. The structure of machine weights makes it easier for people who may have a particular part of the body that is injured or sore. For instance, if your back is sore for whatever reason, you may still be able to perform a leg-lift via a machine where a deadlift would not be a good option.
Machine weights are considered a better option than free weights for people in rehab, as well as elderly individuals and those who are very unfit or simply have not exercised in a long time. These are all categories of people who ought to not be slinging heavyweights at home, which is another reason they may be better off under supervision at the gym.
While modern weight machines are designed to be easy to use, not all machines are created equal. One of the drawbacks of machine weights is that most are not one-size-fits-all in the way free weights are. While weight machines are great for targeting muscle groups, they are not as good for everyday functioning in that they neglect the work of stabilizing muscles. As for plain convenience, if you like to hit the gym after work like a lot of people do, you may have to “wait” your turn, so to speak.
When it comes to comparing free weights and machine workouts, it is obvious why either exists. There are pluses and minuses for both methods. Ideally, you can get the best from both worlds. But the most important thing is to pursue your workout goals in the best way possible. Start small and workout smart and you will be well on your way to accomplishing your fitness goals.