One of the most frequently asked questions about fitness training is: which is better – weight machines or a focus on free weights?
Muscle building works primarily through progression, i.e. continuous weight gain. Only in this way can decisive growth stimuli be set within the muscles. You can achieve these stimuli and progression both with machines and with free weights. So there is no clear YES or NO to machine training and / or training with free weights. Factors such as training experience and the training-specific load (volume and intensity) determine whether it makes more sense to integrate machines into the training or prefer to work with free weights.
We want to present you the most important pros and cons within the article and finally work out the characteristics of machine and free weight training and give you a recommendation. During training, for example, it can be beneficial for optimal growth stimulus to use both machines and free weights for the load.
Important background information: The characteristics, shape and handling of dumbbells and barbells has only changed in nuances over the past 50 years. However, there has been extreme technological advances within machine training. Machines today are much safer and more effective than their predecessors from the past.
When should you prefer to train on machines? How and where can you best integrate them into your training? Compared to free weights, devices are particularly suitable for:
A better feeling for movement sequences and exercise execution
It is often very complex and a long-term process to perfect basic exercises such as the deadlift, squat or bench press in the exercise execution. These exercises require maximum concentration and personal safety with the weight for each execution in order to avoid injuries caused by inattentiveness – especially for beginners.
Compared to free weights, the biomechanical paths within the execution are predetermined by the machine in equipment training. This facilitates muscular coordination and helps you to concentrate on the execution of the exercise and on working with the weight. Performing the same movement over and over helps your muscles and nervous system to condition for certain exercises and weights. The transition to training with dumbbells or barbells can be made easier.
Exercise without a training partner
Who does not know it? Often you do not dare to approach your maximum training performance in individual training. The fear of sudden muscle failure is too great of improperly performing exercises or risking serious injuries. It is often much more pleasant to start the exercise with the help of a training partner and to be protected in the worst-case scenario – this is the only way to dare to go to the limits and to set optimal growth stimuli for the muscles.
With the help of machine training, you can also push large weights with maximum intensity on your own and go to muscle failure. By the mechanically predetermined path you minimize the risk of injuries considerably.
Isolation of individual muscle groups
Several muscle groups are addressed in an interdisciplinary manner within complex basic exercises. In this way, muscle connections and structures are strengthened and your body becomes stronger and more stable in terms of complexity, especially in the core.
The advantage of devices is that they allow individual muscle groups to be trained in isolation and are therefore ideally suited, for example, as the last exercise of a workout to completely destroy the target muscle and thus to be able to set optimal stimuli for muscle building. This is particularly advantageous for advanced athletes.
Carrying out heavy basic exercises puts extreme strain on the body, the strain on joints, tendons, the back and passive structures is enormous and symptoms of fatigue set in more and more quickly. With the help of equipment training, training can be continued efficiently and the target muscle can be worked on in isolation.
Many fitness athletes love to work out with different intensity techniques at the end of a workout. For example, negative or reduction sentences are much easier to perform on machines, especially when you go beyond muscle failure. Above all, the safe execution of the exercise and the clean picking up and putting down of weights is much more time-consuming in the case of basic exercises.
The benefits of free weights
We have now listed some of the advantages of equipment training and you might be thinking: It all sounds great, why should I train on free weights? As is so often the case, several components are always important for success. So the optimal muscle building requires the interaction of different training loads and stimuli. You can guarantee this above all if you also integrate free weights into the training. Compared to devices, free weights are particularly suitable for:
Interaction of several muscle groups
As we have already explained to you above, the weight machines primarily offers the advantage of a muscle-specific, isolated exercise. The advantage of training with free weight lies in the complex inter-muscular exercise execution.
Within the execution of e.g. Deadlifts, squats or bench presses you have to control and dominate the weight in order to ensure a proper execution of the exercise. Due to the permanent stabilization of the weight, several muscle groups always work at the same time within the exercise. In particular, the stress on the core of the body is significantly higher with basic exercises than with machine training. A strong core only has advantages for you. With stronger abdominal and back muscles, you improve your posture and prevent deformation or damage to the intervertebral discs or the spine.
A pleasant side effect of training with free weights: The interaction of different muscle groups under the highest workload means that you consume significantly more calories. So if you want to effectively burn body fat and as many calories as possible during training, complete heavy basic exercises and dose the training on machines.
Basic exercises are an absolute must and the basis for developing strength and thus also for building muscle mass. Without basic exercises such as Bench presses, squats and deadlifts you will not be able to expect any increases in strength or muscle mass in the long term and will quickly reach plateaus and phases of stagnation.
Strengthening of tendons, ligaments and tissue
The interaction of the most varied of muscle groups creates an important growth stimulus not only within the muscles. The tendons, ligaments and connective tissue in particular benefit from training with free weights. Lengthy problems, frequent tension or hardening, and injuries result primarily from weak tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. Muscles can grow very quickly, but the passive structures need more time to get used to increasing weights.
Therefore, you should increasingly integrate basic exercises and free weights into your training plan, as this promotes the interaction of the passive structures – your tendons and ligaments will thank you in the long term.
Stronger growth hormone release
With free weights, you can push, pull, or lift significantly higher loads than with equipment training. Above all, this also promotes the release of growth hormone (GH) and increases the release of testosterone.
Growth hormones and testosterone are essential for building muscle mass and are especially released during basic exercises such as deadlifts, squats and bench presses.
Suitable for all body types
Nowadays devices and machines are designed in such a way that they can usually be adjusted according to your individual needs (size and weight). Nevertheless, the “average person” is of course used as the starting point for the measurement. However, every person is different and characteristics such as arm or leg length, flexibility in the hip flexor or general mobility play an extremely important role in performing the exercise.
If you train with a device, even though it is unfavorable for your body type and you have problems performing the exercise properly, you risk long-term postural damage or even injuries. Training with free weights helps here, because it is basically feasible for everyone. So if you have problems performing the exercises properly on some machines, the next time you should train with free weights as an alternative.
Improving mobility in everyday life
With the help of machine training, you can of course also get stronger and build muscles. In everyday situations, however, this burden only helps you to a limited extent. Due to the given exercise path and execution, holistic and complex movement sequences from everyday life cannot be correctly represented. For example, if you have to lift or carry a lot for your work, long-term deadlifting is more beneficial for the stability of your intervertebral discs and lower back than permanent machine training.
Whenever you move, run or run in everyday life, complex biomechanical movement sequences and the interaction of various muscle groups are responsible. This complexity of movements can best be simulated using free weights and basic exercises and transferred to everyday life. In the long term, you will also benefit from performing basic exercises in the studio in daily life and thus improve your mobility, coordination and agility.
Team athletes or runners should also work more with free weights, for example, as these loads come closest to real-life competitions and training units in terms of their complexity and movement. Coordination, agility and speed can be improved in the long term and you become a complete athlete.
Conclusion: Weight Machines vs Free Weights
As you can see, both equipment training and free weight work have their rightful place in any workout. As is so often the case, a healthy mixture is ideal for efficient and varied training over the long term.
If you want to build quality muscle mass without neglecting passive structures such as tendons, ligaments and connective tissue, you cannot avoid training with free weights in the form of complex basic exercises. In building muscle, they help you to train progressively (with increasing weight) and to guarantee a maximum output of growth hormones. If you want to reduce body fat or lose weight, free weights help you consume more calories much more effectively than with equipment training.
Training on machines and equipment, on the other hand, is ideal for familiarizing yourself with certain movement sequences and, for example, at the end of a training session (when the first signs of fatigue appear and the proper execution of the exercises subsides) to burn out the muscle completely with the help of intensity techniques and thus to provide optimal growth stimuli put.
You should start every training session with a complex basic exercise after a sufficient warm-up phase. On a chest day, for example, this can be done in the form of bench presses or dips. If you are training your back, you can choose deadlifts or pull-ups as the first exercise. During the training you should prefer to do exercises with free weights.
At the end of the training, it is recommended to move to machines or devices in order to destroy the last percent of the muscle fibers and make them stronger for future loads – here you can fall back on intensity techniques such as negative repetitions or drop sets. So you can focus completely on the weight without having to consider the complex movements.