Weight and Resistance Training - Machines vs. Free weights

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06-21-2005, 11:26 AM
It's my understanding that free weights are generally considered to be preferable as they don't "do the work for you" as machines sometimes do. I haven't been lifting for very long (4-6 weeks?) and I have recently started using more weight/fewer reps. My question is this: is it more beneficial to keep using the machines, pushing the weight as high as I can and not having to worry about hurting myself, OR does it make enough of a difference that I should start trying free weights with perhaps a slightly lower (read: more controllable) weight?

I really enjoy pushing myself in terms of the weights used. What I am currently doing is the max weight that still lets me do 3 sets of 5-8 reps before I give out. Before I was doing 3 sets of 10-15 reps and didn't really feel like I was accomplishing much. I'm afraid that if I do this with free weights I may end up twisting or tearing something. Any thoughts?

06-21-2005, 11:34 AM
Move away from the machines....

Free weights teach your body a lot more than just lifting iron. They force you to create a neuron connection to the muscle, with lots of feedback to your brain about balance, control, how far your muscle and joint can move without getting hurt. They are actually safer than machines in that respect.

There are some great machines, and some exercises that are much better done with free weights.

The more body parts and joints that are in motions during an exercise, the more effective that exercise will be. For example, a free bar or dumbbell squat is a compound exercise that is far more effective than a leg extension machine. Both work the quads, but the leg extension ONLY works the quads, requires no balance and no movement other than at the knee joint. Much less effective!


06-21-2005, 12:54 PM
I second Mel that it's time to transition to free weights for at least some of your exercises. :) Like Mel said, free weights will protect you from injury both in and out of the gym because you move in a more natural range of motion and strengthen lots of secondary and stabilizing muscles. There are good machines that I use often (lat pulldowns, assisted pullups, rear delts, Hammer strength, for example), but probably 90% of what I do in the gym uses free weights.

About the rep range - right now you're working in a rep range designed to maximize muscle size (hypertrophy). If size is your goal, you'll want to stay in that 5 - 8 rep range. Being female, you don't have the hormones to get really big, bulky muscles, but this rep range will certainly get you the largest muscles possible.

If you decide that strength is your goal, you might want to consider moving to an 8 - 12 rep range. Moving up to a 12 - 15 rep range would focus more on strength and endurance. The right range for you just depends on what your goals are. :) But regardless of the rep range you choose, you're right to push yourself until you give out, as you said. :yes:

However, while you're transitioning to free weights, I definitely recommend that you drop the weight until you've mastered the form. You'll be surprised at the difference between machines and free weights and the amount of stabilization it takes to do a dumbbell chest or shoulder press. You may be strong in one plane of the motion - the one used in a machine - but quite weak in the others that are needed in a free weight exercise. It would be easy to hurt yourself by trying to use too much weight too fast, and we don't want that to happen!

Pick a light weight and watch your form very carefully to be sure you're doing the exercise correctly. It's helpful to use a mirror to check and see if you're wobbly or shaky or moving off track. If you work out with a friend, it's really helpful to have a spotter when you first start with free weights!

Good luck and let us know how you do!

06-21-2005, 06:01 PM
Great posts MeL and MeG... as usual...

I just wanted to add that most machines are not configured for women 5'3'' like Meg, Mel and I, but for men, therefore the machine may not be hitting the right muscle at the right angle and you may injure yourself there too...

Just a thought from the nonPT here... Meg and Mel feel free to correct me if I'm wrong...

06-21-2005, 08:16 PM
Totally right, m'dear! ;)

06-22-2005, 11:44 AM
Thanks for the tips girls, I think my main block is the intimidation factor - with the machines there are little pictures that tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. It doesn't help that there are 2 "camps" at my gym (probably most others as well). You either fall into the machine camp or the free weight camp. There's a secret handshake that is needed to cross from one to the other. I think there's also a grunting requirement if you want to live on the free weight side.

OK, so if I learn the secret code what are the 1st 3-4 lifts that y'all would recommend I try incorporating into my routine?

06-22-2005, 12:06 PM
:rofl: about the grunting requirement ... sounds like childbirth sometimes, doesn't it?

Hmm ... here are a few basic DB exercises that I'd recommend starting with:

Chest press (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10773&do=detail)

One arm row (for back) (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10824&do=detail)

Shoulder press (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10800&do=detail)

Bicep curls (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10752&do=detail)

Overhead extensions (for triceps) (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10871&do=detail)

Did I forget any good ones, gang?

I linked them to little exercise videos that will give you an idea of the form. Based on my clients, I'm guessing you'll begin using around 8-10# DBs for chest press, 15# for the rows, 8-10# for shoulder press, 8-10# for biceps and 5# for triceps. But feel free to go up (or down) in weight to meet YOUR needs!

Be sure to come back and give us a report! :)

06-22-2005, 12:22 PM

In regards to the grunting, I think that's a guy thing. I watched a guy - much stronger than me - leg press the same amount of weight that I lift and he grunted like he was trying to pass a watermelon. Men are just dramatic like that. If they grunt I guess they feel they are working harder whereas women save their grunting for really hard work - Childbirth!

Also, I have a free weight question. I am able to use the 25# dumbbells for my overhead shoulder press - doing 3 sets of 10 and am ready to move up to 30s. However, I can't do them both at the same time, so this morning I did right arm then left, until I had done 3 sets on each. Does doing each arm seperately take something away from the exercise, mess up form, etc.?


06-22-2005, 12:28 PM
Tiki- One arm at a time is a great variation on the exercise because it forces you to use your core muscles to stabilize the rest of your body so you don't topple over. :)

I'd add dumbbell squats to Meg's list.


06-22-2005, 12:35 PM
Ah, good one, Mel - how could I forget squats? :dizzy:

Tiki - way to go on the 25s, soon to be 30s!! :high: Color me impressed!

I've been doing alternating one arm DB chest press and really liking it, though I had to drop my weight by 5#. Have to try it with shoulder presses.

06-22-2005, 02:27 PM
:lol: on the grunting! I do see some women - mostly in their 20's and working out with a male partner - who feel need to grunt. Weird. Mostly I just make faces. :) I love all these recommendations, I get so many ideas of new exercises to incorporate into my gym time. My knees have been feeling really good lately that I'm thinking of trying some squats and lunges instead of the machines for these muscles. I also think the captive weights will be better in case my knees fail - I don't want the bar landing on me! :eek

06-22-2005, 05:45 PM
I'd add dumbbell squats to Meg's list.

Anybody got a little video of good form for this one? Those snippets are really helpful. For some reason I was thinking that I would have to be putting plates on a bar and doing all sorts of things like that, duh, I never ever thought about the smaller "single handed" DB's.

06-22-2005, 06:05 PM
Here is a dumbbell squat clip:
Dumbbell Squat (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10892&do=detail)

and a standard free bar squat:
Free Bar Squat (http://www.fitsite.com/index.cfm?ContentID=10891&do=detail)

Another way to do a dumbbell squats is to hold one dumbbell vertically, distribution the weight on both hands by holding the weight plate. Hold it between your legs, and do squats with the same form as in the video clips.


06-25-2005, 11:49 AM
Just thought I'd report back. I took Meg's advice and tried the chest press, one armed row, & overhead extensions (I was going to do the shoulder press too but I couldn't figure out my shorthand notes on how to do it :lol: ). The weights given were exactly right. For the tricep move I think I would have been better off with 8lbs but my gym only has 5's & 10's and the 10's made it feel like I might accidentally hyperextend. On the chest press, I didn't feel like I got a very good workout with that weight *except* that was the one move that I had a hard time controlling. You should have seen those dumbells waving around in the air and clunking into each other while I tried in vain to lift in at a slow steady pace. I think I may stick to the machines for that muscle group to keep building while doing the dumbells as well until I can get the stabilizing muscles in good enough shape to switch over completely.

I can't wait until I can move down the line to the heavier weights. The 5's, 10's & 15's may not be literally pink but there is definitely a pink aura surrounding them. :p

Thanks for the advice...

06-25-2005, 01:01 PM
Good job, Julia! :cp:

I'd agree that the chest press is the hardest to control of the exercises. And it sure makes you aware of all those stabilizing muscles that aren't getting worked with machines!

You'll be using those bigger weights in no time ... and it's the best feeling when you can move up. :D

06-25-2005, 01:13 PM
Julia -- That's great that you are moving up.... Did you try a barbell to do a bench press instead of dumbells for your chest for some it's easier than the 2 dumbells at first... Welcome to our world, it's so much fun :D

06-25-2005, 05:21 PM
Did you try a barbell to do a bench press

I considered that but decided against it because I can tell that my right arm (I'm left handed) is somewhat weaker than my left and I wanted to make it work on its own.

I also tried a move that I saw a professional athlete on TV doing. One leg stretched out behind me on a large stability ball, a 15lb DB in each hand and "lunge" with the leg that's on the floor. Talk about needing stabilizing muscles...

06-25-2005, 06:42 PM
This thread is really interesting. I do a few free weights, biceps and triceps, the single arm row, and side raises. I am still mainly machine based at the moment. As I get more confidence I will start trying some more free weights.

We don't have a lot of suitable equipment at our gym, only the dumb bells. And unfortunately the weights area is tiny with a lot of dumb guys chatting around the dumb bells. I used be scared of them but now I just smile and tap my feet for 30 seconds, and if they're still talking I just yell "oi move", and off they scurry! There isn't really the space for lunges.... but then we have great cardio, and most importanty, good instructors, so you gotta take the good with the bad.

Those videos were great, very informative.

12-23-2005, 03:48 AM
Has anyone tried the Bowflex adjustable weights? It seems like a good idea, but I'm wondering how they will hold up long term?

01-20-2006, 12:36 AM
I have been wondering about those, too, for home. Anyone?

02-18-2006, 01:07 PM

03-28-2006, 02:32 AM
Has anyone tried the Bowflex adjustable weights? It seems like a good idea, but I'm wondering how they will hold up long term?

I did buy some adjustable dumbbells from Target. They are Reebok brand, I think. I haven't used them too much, since I go to the gym 4 days a week and need to give my muscles time to rest on my off from gym days, but they seem decent and sturdy. Mine go from 5 pounds to 12.5 pounds per dumbbell. I will need to buy some heavier weights, too, at least 15 pound dumbbells, but for now these will do. My dh bought me an adjustable weight bench (the Danskin ones) for my birthday, too, so now I have somewhere to sit when I do weights at home. :)

08-02-2006, 09:21 PM
"free weight's all the way! you can hurt your self with both very easy! It sounds like your trying to build muscle,by doing 3 set's of 5 to 8 reps
I watched two people who used machine's or cable weight's both time the could do there max on the ''MACHINE'' one person was 100 pounds and the other guy's was 300. when they tryed to lift the "FREE" Weight's the came crashing down on the safty bar's or they would of been hurt!

Are you trying to build or tone? building more weight less rep's toning! less weight more rep's.........when I was a young man I had some big Gun's or Pipe's but now im in to toning and shaping. and if your trying to lose weight beside's plan on Carideo work out with that three or four time's a week. John

If I can help in any way let me no.

11-20-2006, 09:34 AM
meg im not so sure i agree with you when you say that free weights avoid injuries. Machines stop you jerking and make sure u complete the optimum movement corectly. the truth for most ppl is that free weights cause more injuries as ppl often use them incorrectly.

01-12-2007, 08:19 PM
Another thing you should consider is pyramiding. Basically, your first set would around 12 reps. The second around 10. Third around 8...forth 6. If you really want to push it, do it again backwards. Remember, the reps have to be with a weight that you can barely get the last rep out. If you are on your 3rd set and you do 8 reps, but you could have done 10...increase your weight the next time!

As for your original question...I'm with the majority, free weights are best. The machines are great if you have an injury or if you want to max out but don't have a spotter. When using free weights, it's a good practice to have a spotter while you're lifting. When I was around 19 or 20, I broke my chest because I didn't have a spotter...lesson learned!

Another good idea is to switch things up every few weeks. Your body tends to adjust to your workouts and you need to shock or surprise your body by changing your routine. Come up with several exercises for each body part and rotate them around every so often. Don't keep doing bench presses for chest...do bench presses one day and the next time you do chest to flat bench flyes or some other chest exercise.

As for the grunting, most probably don't need to, but when you really want to squeeze out one more repetition that grunt may make the difference...lol...as annoying as it may sound.

01-31-2007, 06:51 AM
:carrot: I'm new here and came across this thread. Thank you all for the information. I've been using machines at the "Y". Now I'm going to try some dumbbells too.

04-19-2007, 03:51 PM
From what i can tell I get better mass from free weights and definition from machine weights.

05-05-2007, 12:39 AM
hi all - meg i read your story and saw you pics - u r an inspiration to me - if u can do it so can i. cathy

05-05-2007, 12:50 AM
im trying to figure out how to get my tracker in here http://www.3fatchicks.net/img/bar097/slider-lifter2/lb/182/120/150/.png (http://www.3fatchicks.com/weight-tracker/) all i get is words - how do i get the pic here? can anyone help me? cathy

05-07-2007, 10:40 PM
ok i got the tracker in - dont know if i can do it again
how is everyone doing? where is everyone? sunday me and a friend ran along the parkway that was closed for the long island marathon but we went real early so we didnt encounter any runners - i went to the gym this morn and worked out with weights for chest shoulders back and abs and then did the treadmill for 13 inutes- went again at night to take an ab class - and did the arctrainer for 15 minutes. had a good food day too.

06-05-2007, 01:27 AM
hi I am new to this thread, I am a regular at 30 something.
I have a few questions if you don't mind, I go to the gym every day, I wanted to loose a little bit of weight before I started using weights, I lost 10 Lbs. and I started using the machines, and I kept doing a lot of Cardio, then the trainer at my gym said to cut some on the cardio and do interval training on the elliptical, bike, stairs and so on for no more than 45 minutes and to keep lifting weights, I started using free weights, a lot of the same exercises you suggested Meg, now I am at a plato, and the trainer suggested now I don't do any cardio for 2 weeks, only to warm up and only use free weights. I am not sure this is sound advise. what do you think?

The more body parts and joints that are in motions during an exercise, the more effective that exercise will be. For example, a free bar or dumbbell squat is a compound exercise that is far more effective than a leg extension machine. Both work the quads, but the leg extension ONLY works the quads, requires no balance and no movement other than at the knee joint. Much less effective!

My question on this is, what do you suggest to do each day, which muscles to use each day as a combination. for example: triceps/legs, back/abs????? I find that too confusing. is my question easy to understand? thanks for the advice!!!

http://www.3fatchicks.net/img/tulip-bar/fireworks01/lb/138.5/114/120.5/.png (http://www.3fatchicks.com/weight-tracker/)

06-05-2007, 11:12 AM
If you work out at home instead of a gym, you can purchase some muscle toning videos, like Arms and Abs of Steel or something along those lines. They will show you all the proper form to train all your different muscle sets and will tell you what size weights to use for which exercises. Generally, beginners would use a set of either 2, 3, & 5 pound; 3, 5, & 8 pound; or 5, 8, & 12 pound weights. I use the 5, 8, & 12 pound dumbells for toning and heavier dumbells for building muscles (I have a free weights bench for benchpressing and squats). I think that the videos are really useful for learning form and technique, which you can build upon as you use more weight.

12-03-2007, 12:48 PM
hmmmm..... free weights vs. Machine really depends on why are you at the gym.
If you are really overweight and you are going to the gym to help you in the weight loss process then machines are you best bet. You dont risk any injury and you can push yourself to the limit.

If you are healthy and fit and looking for weight training to tone /buff and for strenght training then free weights are better.

Now if you really want to sculpt your body then machines really isolate your muscles. Now some good advice pointed this out as a "bad thing".(in case of the benchpress). As machines dont get into play some muscles that free weights do. It is not a "bad things" if you are body building. Infact body builders do a lot of machines to isolate certain muscles.

So if you are new stick to machines until you are confident that you can handle free weights and remember always have a partner looking over you ready to spot you when you are doing free weights.

12-03-2007, 05:05 PM
If you are really overweight and you are going to the gym to help you in the weight loss process then machines are you best bet. You dont risk any injury and you can push yourself to the limit.


Sorry, but I couldn't disagree more with this paragraph.

Why is not using stabilizing muscles and focusing on one muscle ata time better for weight loss? Use less muscles = Burn fewer calories = less fat loss.

Also, if you use free weights properly and take the proper safety precautions they are actually less of an injury risk as you are able to use the body's natural range of motion and not limited to the machine's range of motion which could put a person at serious injury risk.

Why do you need a machine to push yourself to the limit?

I do agree that if your goal is to isolate certain muscles, there are many reasons to include machines as part of your workouts. Many bodybuilders do.

However, if your goal is fat loss, then getting up off the machines and on the feet is far superior in the majority of cases. Of course there are those with physical limitations for which this may not apply.

12-03-2007, 06:01 PM
IMO machines should be used only:
- in case of injury (which prevents you from performing movements at full range) and sometimes during physical therapy when the work/progress needs to be more gradual
- to supplement exercise done with free-weights and body weight (calisthenics, isometrics, etc)

Nowadays there are so many different kinds of machines that it seems as if you can take care of each body part full, but the body wasn't made to operate the way machines make you, so it really is best to use the full range of motion and also use a variety of activities. The muscles we need to work aren't only those you see with the naked eye, so activities that work your core, pelvic floor etc are also important.

Even The Firm now has a variety of wokouts including power yoga and Pilates!

02-02-2008, 12:03 PM
i discovered a book at barnes and nobles that helps me determine which exercises i do when i hit the gym.

its called "101 workouts for women". don't remember who its by, b/c its in my living room and i'm in the bed room relaxing.

but only problem i have with the book is the super hyped up women in the photo's shown doing the exercises... i mean yeah i'm striving for killer abs, but i know i'll never have abs like they do.

02-02-2008, 12:04 PM
Here's the book cover


05-12-2008, 08:49 PM
free weights are my personal fav of the both, but i do use the assisted chinup/dip machine for now.:)

Digging Deep
11-17-2008, 06:03 PM
free weights are my personal fav of the both, but i do use the assisted chinup/dip machine for now.:)

I agree that machines are great when you are doing something that requires you to use your body weight as resistence but are unable to. As suggested above, I also do pull-up and dips weight-assisted.

12-27-2008, 12:00 PM
I have read about the workout for the upper body but what do you guys do for the lower body? I had knee surgery and can't do squats or lunges. Any recommendations for alternatives?

01-04-2009, 10:48 PM
I use machines only when free weights are too annoying. If you're not allowed to do squats or lunges, it's hard to tell what you can do, so I guess you should check with your doctor first, but I like the dumbbell step-up, the sled 45 degree leg press, and lever lying leg curl.

08-12-2009, 08:50 PM
JamZ , if you just go knee surgery are you doing physio therapy? Your therapis should be able to tell you...

09-01-2009, 11:33 PM
I had knee surgery 16 years ago, unfortunately another one is looming on the horizon. PT suggested staying on machines for my lower body work, because it allows a slower, more controlled movement and more importantly, I won't have my knee go out, (literally, I have no cushioning cartlige under the patella, and the tendons and ligaments around the knees are weak and overstretched due to many times the patella has slid around of its own free will) I wear a specialty knee brace during workouts, one of those seriously sexy ones with the metal bars all around it, but I refuse to NOT work out. So we've come up with machine workout for lower half, that works for me, as well as involving yoga and pilates to help strengthen stabilizing muscles, in the hopes of preventing total knee replacement.

09-09-2009, 10:38 AM
I can't tell you all how helpful this thread has been for me! I've always wondered about free weights vs. machines and everyone's advice has been great.

06-20-2010, 10:48 AM
I've only skimmed this thread, so I'm not sure if this has already been mentioned, but I hate machines.

Not just because they employ fewer muscles (although I do agree that true compound movements like a barbell squat or deadlift are better), but because machines are designed for the "average" person. If you're very tall, or (in my case) very short, machines aren't designed for you. So the range of motion they're forcing you to move through is totally wrong for your body, and you're more at risk of injury than you would be with a barbell - assuming you do the barbell exercise with good form, and the right amount of weight.

Also, if you exclusively use machines you'll end up with muscle imbalances. When I was at school I worked out a lot with machines, and I could squat an obscene amount. The first time I tried to do a real barbell squat was a huge eye opener!

06-20-2010, 11:47 PM
Well said! :)

08-02-2010, 11:26 AM
I just wanted to add in that I love free weights, I've just started doing them.

I thought I was doing so well by doing the weight machine circuit at the gym, I thought it would make me stronger and help me lose the weight faster. My weight has practically stalled for months now (a rate of about half a pound a week).

I started doing free weights about a week ago and have this '101 exercises to do with weights' book. I make my own routines up from the book and my weight is dropping quicker then it has in a long time! (I've dropped two pounds already!)

My body actually feels worked, like I'm challenging it, I can feel specific muscle groups sore after exercise. All machines ever did was make me tired.

Yay free weights! :)

08-02-2010, 12:01 PM
One thing I've noticed since working with barbells more and just general free weight type work is my abs get sore without any ab work. Also I really do feel like I get a total body workout and feel muscles that weren't even a dominant part of the workout.

08-02-2010, 08:07 PM
Same here nelie, when I was just doing cardio and the machines my stomach never got sore. I always felt like I couldn't work it enough.

But since starting free weights, I have that great soreness you get from a good work out in my obliques and other sections of my stomach. I feel like I accomplished something, even if it's not an exercise for that specific part.

09-16-2011, 05:48 PM
Is it true that squats and lunges are the best way to slim your legs?

12-19-2011, 05:07 PM
It's good to vary from both of them. When my body becomes used to a certain machine, I switch to free weights using a different movement. It's generally important to "shock" your body when weight training. Free weights allow bigger movement and offer a variety of ways to move the weights.

01-05-2012, 07:22 AM
Training in a solid proven way that focuses on basic free weight compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press, chins, dips, rows and military press really can make a huge difference in overall body composition. Everyone with the ability should try it IMO.

05-25-2012, 02:02 AM
Since Meg's video links go to a pay fitness site (how the internet changes in 7 years!) I thought I'd link to her suggested starter free weight exercises on a different site.
Please edit/update if there are better ones out there or if I've linked to the wrong version.

You will have to switch to the female tab for videos featuring women.

Chest press (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/barbell-bench-press-medium-grip)

One arm row (for back) (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/one-arm-dumbbell-row)

Shoulder press (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/barbell-shoulder-press)

Bicep curls (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/dumbbell-bicep-curl)

Overhead extensions (for triceps) (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/dumbbell-one-arm-triceps-extension)

and Mel's additions

Dumbbell Squat (http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/detail/view/name/dumbbell-squat)

Free Bar Squat - need help with this one, too many options and I'm not sure what I'm looking for