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Free Weights vs. Machines: Is One Better Than the Other?

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The Basics

Resistance training causes muscles or muscle groups to work against a force, such as gravity or exercise equipment, that provides a resistance strong enough to increase strength. Some of the more familiar equipment used for resistance training are free weights, machines, and cable systems.

There has been a lot of debate over which type of resistance training is best. The best plan may be to explore your options and decide which one meets your needs. A combination of the different types of resistance training may offer the most effective workout.

Health Benefits of Resistance Training

There are numerous health benefits associated with resistance training, including:

Build a Program

Before embarking on a program, there are many factors to consider—the most important being your personal goals. If you are a beginner, start with a simple program. As you gain confidence and strength, you can progress by varying your exercises, the number of repetitions and sets, and the length of time you rest between sets.

Choose the equipment that is right for you:

There are advantages to both free weights and machines, but often one is more appropriate than the other to achieve specific outcomes. Combining the two forms allows you to enjoy the advantages of both. For example, certain muscle groups are difficult to isolate with free weights. In this case, machines are a better option, even for experienced lifters. Machines also allow you to lift heavier weights. However, they impose restrictions that may not be right for every user. Free weights enable the body to move more naturally and allow you to make slight variations in form. In addition, they are universal—every gym will have familiar free weight equipment.

Supervision Enhances Performance

The debate continues about which form of resistance training is better, but there is little disagreement that exercises performed under the supervision of an instructor will produce better results. In one study, the results of a supervised group were significantly better compared to an unsupervised group.

Using Your Body

Free weights and machines are not the only resistance training options. Body weight can provide enough resistance for a workout—push-ups and dips are just two examples—and resistance bands are easy to transport. Fitness instructors can suggest creative exercises and tips on proper form for persons who are traveling or without access to a gym.

(Especially) Not Just for Jocks

The media and popular culture identifies weight training with youth, flat abs, and big biceps. In fact, weight training can be most beneficial for many people who will never find themselves on the front cover of fitness magazines. Close supervision (often with careful physician monitoring) is necessary for safety and effectiveness. The results often include better strength, endurance, and quality of life.


American College of Sports Medicine

American Medical Society for Sports Medicine


Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology

Public Health Agency of Canada


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Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 3/10/2016