There's been debate about whether free weights or machines are best when it comes to working out at the gym. Instead of debating it, let's just take a look at the pros and cons of each, and which option may be best for you.
We'll be leaving out cable machines since those have aspects of both (cables are great to use though, in case you wanted an opinion).
- Easy to use. Because they're very mechanical, the movements make them really simple to use. If you're still in doubt, most machines in your gym will likely have a small picture set on them showing how to use the machine. Along with the pictures, there can also be a set of instructions for further reinforcement.
- Less chance of injury. Since they're easy to use, beginners and elderly don't necessarily need to learn the proper form of a workout since the machine is essentially doing that for them. Don't get me wrong: there are still wrong ways of using a particular weight machine, but the likelihood of that is lessened when compared to using free weights.
- They're safer, so you don't need a spotter. If you're the type that wants (or needs) to work out alone, you can set the weight quite high and never need a spotter.
- You can isolate muscle groups. For bodybuilders, this may be an important factor. To be able to maximize hypertrophy in specific muscle groups and achieve the physique you're aiming for, a machine can lessen the use of of stabilizers, allowing you to target the exact muscles that you want to grow.
- Inability to use stabilizing muscles. On the other end of isolation, not being able to work your stabilizers can lead to injury; beginners that only ever work out using machines that move over to free weights may find themselves getting injured due to the muscle stabilizers getting little to no training previously.
- The workouts aren't functional to the type of movements we typically do in the "real world." They translate less to our movement patterns, making machines less ideal for athletes or those that do manual labor.
- Functional movements. Because you have to use your stabilizing muscles to use free weights, they allow you to train more functionally than machines do. Hitting those small muscles that machines don't allow you to will make you to get stronger in those particular lifts. These functional movements and overall stronger muscles can translate to the activities you do outside of the gym.
- Less mechanical. You'll be able to work out in a much more natural way: since machines can't take into account your actual body shape, flexibility and proportions, with free weights you'll be able to do workouts that exactly suit you. This means more range of motion as well.
- More variation. Working out in the same way on a machine can get boring. Boredom can become less desire to work out, making your overall progress slow down. You're also stuck with whatever machines your gym provides, and not all gyms have a wide array of machines to pick from. The amount of variation you can have with free weights is just about endless, making your workouts more interesting.
- Harder to do "properly." Free weights don't come with a set of instructions. While there are plenty of "easy" exercises you can do with free weights, they do have a slightly higher barrier for entry compared to machines.
- More chance of injury. Because proper form and technique are harder to learn with free weights than machines, it's easier to injure yourself by doing an exercise wrong. There are also no safety mechanisms with free weights; if you fail to do an exercise, the weight needs to end up somewhere.
Which Is Best for You?
If you're a beginner, someone in rehabilitation, or are at an age where machines are simply easier for you to use, go with machines. This can help you make your transitions into the gym easier, and you're more likely to start right away without needing advice from a coach or trainer. After you've gotten comfortable and a little more fit, you can start adding free weights to your routine.
For those that are already past the beginner stages: you're probably already using free weights. If you're not and you've been using primarily machines, I urge you to consider adding free weights to your routine. Don't neglect your stabilizers for much longer — no matter what your fitness or physique goal is, the chance of getting injured is not worth it and will set you way back, should that happen.
In the end, I highly recommend free weights to just about everyone, unless there's an issue preventing you from using them. But weight machines do have their place in the gym and they get disparaged more than they should.
Either way and no matter which you decide to utilize, the fact that you're staying active and improving yourself is the most important factor here.