Machine Versus Free Weights: Which One Should You Choose?

You walk into the gym and look around, noticing that there are machines and free weights. Which one should you use? Should you focus on free weights, stick to the machines, or should you incorporate both into your workout routine?

Free weights can include dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, wrist weights, and barbells. You can do bicep curls, flys, bench presses, squats, and more with free weights. Machines help you do leg extensions, rows, shoulder presses, and pull-downs, to name a few. Some people swear by using free weights, while others say machine weights are the best, and it's a debate that never ends. 

Strength training, whether with machines or free weights, has excellent health benefits. Weight lifting benefits include stronger bones and joints, building muscle, better heart health, burning fat, and decreased risk of injury (via Insider). Who doesn't want that?

There are pros and cons to free weights and machine weights. Which one is better?

The pros and cons of free weights and machines

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that people were able to lift heavier weights when using machines versus free weights. Researchers say this is because machines provide stability and don't activate surrounding smaller muscles to work. This makes machine weights perfect for gaining muscle mass in specific areas.

If you're injured and want to focus away from your injury, machines are the way to go. Machines target specific muscles so you can allow your injury to rest and heal (via the American Council on Exercise). 

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that free weights help you gain muscle faster because they make you work your stabilizer muscles. As a result, you'll work more muscles and fibers when using free weights. However, a 2015 study published in the journal Injury Epidemiology found that more people were injured when using free weights. Researchers analyzed emergency room records and found 2,873 cases where people were injured at a gym. Over half of them were using free weights. Some used too much weight, had poor form, or dropped the weight on themselves. 

Incorporating both options into your workout routine can yield the best fitness benefits, according to Men's Health. If you want to target specific muscles, choose weight machines. If you want to work stabilizer muscles and surrounding muscles, choose free weights. Most importantly, select the exercises you enjoy.