There's no doubt that resistance training is the best way to increase muscle growth, or hypertrophy, but many people always ask which is better for resistance training: weight machines or free weights?
Many a meathead including myself would argue there's no such contest it's free weights all the way. Arguing the case that they provide a fuller or more fluid range of motion. That you have to use your stabilizing muscles to lift the weight, which will result in overall better training etiquette and muscle gains. Then it gets a little thin and patchy from here on in.
Dorian Yates famously switched to the smith machine and hack squat after he injured his hips, and his quads and hams where massive, light years above his competiing peers at the time. Then again you could argue he already built massive legs with free weight squats previous to his injury.
Naturally there are other forms of resistance training like body weight exercises, in which the weight of the body serves as the resistance. Then you have resistance bands, which rose in popularity when commercial gyms were ordered closed due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Many martial artists and gymnasts build impressive muscular physiques with mainly bodyweight exercises. And look at the shoulders on swimmers, all down to powering through the water. Well you can build impressive muscle without any weights but for balance and hypertrophy nothing yet has surpassed using weights.
Which Provides The Better Workout : Free Weights or Machines?
That begs the age-old question: do machines or free weights provide a more effective workout? Both options have benefits, so choosing one is not as simple as it may appear.
An observation I've made is that many seasoned bodybuilders rely more on machines than they do on free weights. The reason for this is unclear, however it may be related to the fact that machines reduce stress on the body's musculoskeletal system.
After 40, connective tissue becomes a major problem since it does not recover from exercise as quickly as muscle does due to a diminished blood supply. As well as that, connective tissue begins to become less supple, effectively drying out, leaving them more prone to damage.
Many experienced weight trainers, whether bodybuilders or not, might feel more comfortable using machines because of the increased degree of control they offer compared to free weights. I know and I am in my late forties that I like using a preacher curl machine as opposed to a barbell for bicep curls.
Years ago I had tennis elbow and a wrist strain, and a barbell and sometimes a heavy dumbbell puts undue stress on my elbow and a bit on the wrist. It seems that the elbow tissue has never fully recovered. I can get a massive pump with the machine preacher curls so i haven't really lost any size.
There is little question that you have better control of a weight when you utilise a machine. Like I mentioned in the article opener you have to work hard with supporting muscles groups and also your joints to stabilize barbells and dumbells on a lot of free weight exercises.
Machines, on the other hand, confine you to a single plane, isolating the trained muscles even more than usual. There are others who believe this is a drawback of machines compared to free weights, which more closely mimic natural movement. I can see both points of view.
Nautilis & Arthur Jones - The Dawn of The Machines
I know I like to bang on about Dorian Yates a lot on this site, but his training principles were sound. One of the best tips I got from him was to pre-exhaust your lats on the Nautilis Pull over machine prior to training back. His idea was the biceps do far too much assistance work on pulling motions when training the back, they would tire first before those massive back muscles would have a chance to get a burn out.
The inventor of that machine was the famed Arthur Jones. That was in the 70s. His machines where a firm favorite of the hyper massively dense Mike Mentzer (Dorian's mentor). In his prime Mentzer was about the thickest, most proportioned guy on the planet. The only person to get a perfect judging score of 300 at the '78 Mr Universe.
The mad inventor, film producer, mercenary, and self-proclaimed genius & entrepreneur Arthur Jones launched a line of workout devices in 1970 that he said would forever alter the face of weight training. His Nautilus machines, so called because of the camlike look of the machine's workings, provided all the benefits of free weights without the associated drawbacks.
Jones observed, for instance, that while using free weights, there were ranges of motion during which the muscle being trained experienced minimal or no direct resistance. In contrast, Jone's cam mechanism offered continuous, incremental resistance across the whole range of motion. Thus, Jones referred to his Nautilus machines as improved barbells.
Jones claimed that his machines were so efficient in building muscle, especially when used to the point of physical failure, that they required short, occasional exercises to allow for full recuperation. And hence the likes of Mike Mentzer came along and pushed this theory to the max by revolutionizing his workouts with the short burst to absolute failure mechanism similar to HIIT, only with weights. Something which Mike dubbed Heavy Duty training.
Jones went on to say that his machines will allow for a previously unheard-of level of muscular growth since they eliminated the main challenges connected with lifting free weights.
So with the example of the Nautilis pullover machine. The idea was to remove the biceps from the exercise. Could this exercise provide a better alternative than free weights for developing the lats? Well I'm not sure, but I know its an excellent pre-exhaust exercise before I add in regular pullups, pull downs, bent over rows, t-bar rows, lat cable extensions and even machine rows.
I believe in incorporating whatever gets the job done. And with the pullover machine by Nautilis you really feel it on the lats, it is insane.
You can't get the same range of motion or isolation using dumbbells for pullovers and lying with your back across a bench. So this is one exercise where the machine excels. Not saying its better, but you can't say its a bad exercise. In fact its the exact opposite.
In this illustration Nautilus machines might compensate for the shortcomings encountered with free weight training. In fully developed bodybuilders, these muscles provide the superhero v-taper of the broad back.
The strength of the arms, especially the upper arm biceps muscles, are definitely a limiting factor in exercises like lat pulldowns, bent-over rows, dumbbell rows, pull ups and cable rows. My biceps used to always fail out first on lat pulldowns, many bodybuilder use straps to compensate for this.
To reduce the pressure on the biceps, Arthur Jones designed the pullover machine with elbow pads. You would drive through with the elbows and this would remove a great degree of the biceps in an assistance capacity. Because you weren't relying on the strength or tiredness of the arm muscles, you got a more direct back workout.
Jones believed that the Nautilus pullover machine would stimulate lat growth in a manner analogous to that of barbell squats stimulating thigh growth. This went on to be Nautilus' signature machine, and for good reason, it worked a treat.
There is a lot of science in bodybuilding and it is constantly evolving. But the science behind machines is not universal. If a machine works for one person, it may not to another. Levers come into play, height, center of gravity, flexibility, and the mind muscle connection. Strength on machines don't always correlate to real world strength, or strength on free weights.
Some machines are rigid, some do too much work. Some you just can't get into the groove with. One thing machines are good at is working to failure in a safer manner. Try training to failure on a free squat, especially with no training partner. I mean till real failure, until you haven't got an ounce of strength left. Dangerous.
Now compare that to a smith machine or a leg press or hack squat. Just roll the levers back into the slots, no matter if you fail in the hole.
Do Machines Offer More Progressive Resistance Than Free Weights?
Progressive resistance, progressive resistance...the mantra of bodybuilding. But can you keep it going across the full rep range?
The lack of resistance during a range or ranges of the exercise you are performing is the main issue when using free weights. A machine can have an advantage in this respect.
For instance, during a barbell curl, the biceps experience the most resistance at the beginning and middle of the movement, and the resistance gradually decreases until it is nearly nonexistent at the end of the exercise. Resistance is applied across the whole range of motion on a variable resistance workout machine, making up for this shortcoming.
In theory, this might lead to more muscle growth because more muscle fibers would be worked. This feature alone might make you think that machines are better than free weights for building muscle and strength, but this is far from the case.
Machines, for one thing, limit you to a single plane of motion. Bodybuilders now work muscles in various angles, concentrating on different strength curves and movement patterns. Not all machines offer this versatility.
So i suppose the score would be 1-1. The machines can offer continuous resistance but free weights can overcome this with partial reps and also changing the angle of the exercise.
Interestingly home gyms like the Bowflex Blaze try to capitalise on the constant resistance machines offers by using rod weight resistance. See my post here for more details.
An Area Where Free Weights Excel
The use of free weights has several advantages over machines, the most notable being the increased muscle work that occurs. Compound movements like the shoulder press, deadlift, squat and bench press use your stabilizing or auxiliary muscles to control the barbell or dumbbells.
Even when you are working smaler muscles like the biceps you are using loads of other muscles to keep you stabilized. Think of the core, triceps, shoulder, neck, the thighs, well virtualy every muscle group has a suporting role, even on bicep curls.
When you are performing leg extensions on a machine you primarily target the vastus lateralis muscle group on the front of the thighs, as this is an isolation exercise. The rest of the thigh muscles and the hamstrings play a very minimal role
Now compare that to a free weight squat, you work not only the front of your thighs but also the hips and glutes, and also the back. Moreover, squats carry over to real world movements, this power translates to everyday activities and can boost athletic performance.
Where would a strongman be without huge squats and deadlifts? These are performed much better in terms of strength and the translation of strength via free weights. These 2 exercises will never come secondary to machine versions, in terms of gauging true strength, and carrying over to real world strength, i.e. hauling some heavy stuff. NEVER.
Surely Free Weights Are More Anabolic & Build More Muscle?
Fifteen different upper- and lower-body activities were selected from studies where direct comparisons were made between training with free weights and machines. Free weights may have more of an anabolic effect since they cause greater muscle activation.
The anabolic hormones testosterone and growth hormone were shown to be released at a higher rate during free weight compound exercise, namely everybody's favorite gym day exercise - barbell squats, when compared to training legs with a leg press machine.
Nonetheless, this is a pointless discussion because it is now understood that the transient increase in testosterone that follows weight training has a negligible effect on muscle growth. Anabolic enhancers, such as anabolic steroids, produce these effects only when testosterone levels are artificially raised and kept artificially high for an extended period of time.
However, one recent study looked at the effects of exercise on all hormones to find which ones actually had anabolic effects that lasted beyond the training session. The only hormones proven to do this are growth hormone and, shockingly, cortisol.
In muscle, cortisol is typically thought of as a catabolic hormone that encourages muscular breakdown. Anabolic effects are promoted after workout, though. One of its benefits is that it encourages the body to make use of fats for energy, which can speed up the healing process after exercise and even boost the anabolic effects on muscle tissue.
Are Machines Safer To Use?
This question always amuses me. Most of the injuries I have sustained in life have happened out of the gym. Bending over to pick something off the floor, then ping, something snaps in the lower back. or twisting too fast to one side after hearing a distracting noise, and then ow, thanks for the neck strain.
Injuries can occur in the gym, and repetitive strain and wear and tear can be a leading accomplice, but it's like all things in life, you can't prevent or predict something out of the ordinary from occurring.
I have injured my knees on a smith machine squat, on a hexagonal squat bar, which is supposed to be safer on the back, but that's not always the case. However, I have also pulled my back 2 or 3 times on the deadlift and once during the squat. I also dropped a 2.5kg plate on my toe one time, but that's just my own stupidity.
Heavy squats have the potential to seriously damage you. You've perhaps seen that photo of the bodybuilder lying straddled under a collapsed squat with both his knees busted, looks like they'd practically snapped off the hinges.
Well here's a similar video > don't watch if you are squeamish...it's age restricted for a reason...
Inside a gym, free weights have potentially the most chance of damaging you. You can like myself get injured on machines but a lot of them have some sort of safety feature or are limited in their range of motion.
You can only perform some types of exercises on machines. This is one reason why machines can be better than free weights. This is shown by exercises like hamstring curls, leg extensions, hack squats, leg presses, and a lot of cable exercises (tricep extensions, side lateral raises…). You can do these to some extent with resistance bands, but they are nowhere near as good as proper gym quality weight machines. If you use resistance bands to do leg presses, you won't stress the muscle or feel the muscle work anywhere near as good as a high quality machine can do.
Advantages Free Weights Have Compared to Machines
- Take up less space - can be a small as a dumbbell or kettlebell and a few plates - so easily to turn your bedroom or garage into a workout space
- usually cheaper - in the respect you can pick up a barbell and a few plates of weights for a relatively small price- you can get started for less than $20
- can work several muscle groups at the same time more effectively
Advantages of Machines Compared To Free Weights
- can be safer for some exercises
- better as isolating the muscle of specific exercises like thigh extensions, tricep extensions
The debate free weights versus machines is starting too narrow. The best approach is what most people take in the gym these days is to combine both. It doesn't matter what you use as long as it is effective and you are progressing over the course of your training cycle.
A lot of people to this day say that those who first start powerlifting training before moving onto bodybuilding, develop much thicker physiques than those who don't. perhaps that argument is getting old, because you can shift a lot of weight off the floor (deadliftng) and underneath the squat bar and still have a small physique.
What matters most is the intensity, if the machine or free weights adds or subtracts to your physique and your training cycle. If you progress with an exercise whether that's with machines or free weights, just for the sake of it, and not because it works for you, then this is a futile recipe for disaster.
Not everyone who works up to an 800 pound squat is going to have massive bodybuilding style legs. Yet someone who can work a 300 pound squat to the bone an isolate the leg muscles, can have a massive set of legs, like Ben Pakulski.
When it comes to resistance training, both machines and free weights have their own set of pros and cons.
Free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells, are often considered more versatile and effective for building functional strength, as they require the use of stabilizing muscles in addition to the primary muscles being targeted. This helps to improve balance and coordination, as well as increase overall muscle activation.
On the other hand, weight machines are often seen as more user-friendly and safe, as they typically have guided movement patterns and limited range of motion. This can be beneficial for people who are new to weightlifting or have limited mobility.
Here are some quotes from professional athletes, bodybuilders, strength trainers, and powerlifters about the use of machines versus free weights:
"Free weights allow for a greater range of motion and recruit more stabilizer muscles, leading to a more well-rounded workout." - strength trainer, Mike Boyle
"Machines are great for isolation exercises, but free weights are better for compound movements that recruit multiple muscle groups." - professional bodybuilder, Jay Cutler
"I believe in using a combination of both machines and free weights in my training. Machines are a great tool for targeting specific muscle groups and working on weaknesses, while free weights offer a more functional and balanced workout." - powerlifter, Mark Bell
"I prefer using free weights over machines because they require more stabilizer muscles to be activated, leading to a more athletic and functional physique." - professional athlete, LeBron James
It's worth noting that the best approach to resistance training is to use a combination of both machines and free weights, as each has its own unique benefits and can complement each other.
Pro-Machine Additional Studies to Research
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that machine-based resistance training was more effective in increasing muscle endurance compared to free weight training.
Link to the study: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2003/12000/The_Effects_of_Free_Weight_and_Machine_Training.20.aspx
A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that machine-based resistance training was more effective in reducing the risk of injury compared to free weight training.
Link to the study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18076493/
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that machine-based resistance training was more effective in improving muscle activation and reducing muscle imbalances compared to free weight training.
Link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5538465/
Pro-Free Weights Additional Studies to Research
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research looked contrasted the muscle activation of various muscle groups during machine and free weight exercises. The results showed that free weight exercises were associated with significantly greater muscle activation compared to machine exercises.
Link to the study: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2002/08000/Comparison_of_Muscle_Activation_Between_a_Smith.20.aspx
- A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness compared the effects of machine-based resistance training and free weight resistance training on muscle strength and mass. The results showed that free weight training was more effective in increasing muscle strength and mass compared to machine-based training.
Link to the study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25670166/
- A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine compared the effects of machine-based resistance training and free weight resistance training on balance and stability. The results showed that free weight training was more effective in improving balance and stability compared to machine-based training.
Link to the study: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1055/s-0029-1237151
- A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of machine-based resistance training and free weight resistance training on muscle activation and muscle endurance. The results showed that free weight training was more effective in increasing muscle activation and endurance compared to machine-based training.
Link to the study: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2007/06000/The_Effects_of_Free_Weight_and_Machine_Training.27.aspx
It is important to note that the results of these studies may vary depending on the specific exercises, training programs, and populations being studied, and more research is needed to determine the best approach to resistance training. Nevertheless, these studies provide evidence that machine-based training may have some advantages over free weight training in terms of increasing muscle endurance, reducing the risk of injury, and improving muscle activation and reducing muscle imbalances.