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Exercise is highly beneficial for physical and mental well-being. No matter what your goals are, you’d be wise to incorporate some form of strength training in your fitness routine. This will not help you get stronger, burn fat, and ultimately become healthier. In conjunction with aerobic exercise, strength training can benefit your cardiovascular system considerably.

There are various strength training options to consider. Most gyms stock a combination of free weights and machines, but what are they?

Well, free weights involve movements executed with dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and other tools that are not attached to a structural device.

Machine exercises differ, working on a fixed path with a stabilized range of motion where weights can be adjusted accordingly.

There are also cable stations, which are often considered machines, but in reality have much more in common with free weights with regards to pros and cons.

All three have benefits and limitations, which are worth considering on route to implementing an effective workout regime. But what exactly are the pros and cons of free weights and machine exercises? By the end of this article, you’ll be capable of addressing this question, and able to make a well-informed decision on which bests suits your individual needs and requirements.

Free Weights


  • These exercises allow the body to reproduce natural movements, since you’re afforded complete freedom to move around, rather than being locked into a specific range of motion. This freedom allows you to choose movements that respect the physiological action of muscles, benefiting from a full range of motion that places less strain on the joints.
  • Free weights activate the muscle’s stabilizers, which are responsible for keeping the body balanced and upright during movement. These muscles contract during free weight exercises to keep the body firm.
  • Lifting free weights increases your coordination by improving neuromuscular pathways that connect your muscles to the brain.
  • Free weights offer the most variety, with total body stimulation achieved as many muscles are activated.


  • Free weights can be daunting for beginners, where a higher learning curve can make things more difficult. Beginners consequently need assistance from trainers.



  • Machines are easy to use, with followable instructions and pictures. Because there is a more steady learning curve, machine workouts are easy for beginners, requiring less assistance.
  • Machine workouts allow you to isolate specific muscle groups. They can be useful for creating mechanical overload and building muscle volume.
  • Machines are very time efficient, especially for strength circuits.


  • Movements are guided in a specific position, which can be stressful or potentially dangerous for the joints.
  • They don’t develop stabilizer muscles in the same way as free weights. Because machines do most of the work, you don’t use your muscle’s stabilizers. If you neglect your stabilizer muscles for too long, you risk developing weakness that can lead to injury and poor posture.
  • The movement can be unnatural, and fail to follow the physiological function of the muscle. This can be harmful and less effective.

Machines are sometimes too simple, and there are situations where they should be avoided altogether. For example, if one of your shoulders lack mobility, or your pectoral muscles lack flexibility, using the peck deck machine isn’t recommended. This would cause discomfort, and could eventually lead to wear and tear. In this situation, a dumbbell bench press would be much safer and more beneficial.

Of course there are scenarios where using a machine can help you reach a specific goal, but this is reliant on great body posture, perfect balance, and great mobility and flexibility of the muscles.


Though free weight exercises are arguably more beneficial, a combination of machines and free weights is an effective way to achieve functional and structural goals. After improving a specific function with free weights, you can finish with machine workouts to add volume and trigger new growth. This is especially useful if your stabilizers are fatigued from free weights, since you’re given an opportunity to exhaust and stimulate specific muscles on a machine.

If you had to choose one or the other, free weights are preferable for functional strength/fitness, compared with machine workouts, which are great if you’re focusing on aesthetics/specific muscle groups. For overall strength and conditioning, free-weight exercises are the bedrock of any strength-training plan, especially those which focus on compound movements. Machines are a great way to consolidate a free-weight workout by strengthening any weak spots and crafting the physique of your dreams.