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Are MAchine-BAsed or Free Weights Better for GAins?

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There’s no doubt that strength training has numerous benefits, including stronger bones and muscles, better balance, and maintenance of a healthy weight. So how do you determine whether to use machine-based or free weights to achieve your muscle gain goals? The short answer is that the choice depends on your goals, preferences, and individual circumstances. But let’s take a deeper dive into the benefits of each modality so you can make the right choice for you. 

Do They Work Muscles Differently?

At the end of the day, both free weights and machines work many of the same muscles. But, if you’re doing a direct comparison, you may find that free weights work more muscles with individual moves while machines provide a more targeted workout. Picture this: when you’re performing a dumbbell shoulder press, not only are your shoulders engaged, but so are other muscles, such as your core, triceps, and upper body, as it works to stabilize you. But if you’re using a shoulder press machine, a fixed range of motion guides the weight up and down, eliminating the need for other muscles to help stabilize you. So, the majority of the work falls to your shoulders.

Here’s a further breakdown of the benefits of using free weights and machines to hit your muscle gain goals.

Free Weights
  • Functional Strength: As the example above highlights, free weights require more stabilizing muscles to be engaged, leading to improved overall functional strength. This mimics real-life movements more closely than machines and can help you get stronger for everyday tasks such as carrying heavy grocery bags or lifting your kids.
  • Muscle Activation: Because free weights require balance and stabilization, free weights often activate a greater number of muscle groups in a single exercise. Bicep curls can become a total upper-body workout as your abs and back muscles kick in to keep you standing straight.
  • Versatility: With free weights, you can perform a wide range of compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This comes back to the idea of engaging multiple muscle groups when performing one move. This can give you a quicker and more efficient workout if you’re short on time.
  • Progressive Overload: You can more easily experiment with and adjust the weight with free weights, allowing for a more gradual progression in strength and muscle development. This can also be a low-pressure way to figure out your personal limits when it comes to lifting weights.
Machine-Based
  • Isolation: Unlike the compound workout you get with free weights, machines are typically designed to isolate specific muscle groups, which can be beneficial for targeting and developing particular muscles. This can give you a laser focus if you’re looking to make gains in certain areas, such as your shoulders, biceps, or quads.
  • Reduced Injury Risk: Machines often have built-in safety features that can help prevent injuries and better guide you through movements with good form. This makes machines a good choice if you’re a strength training newbie or recovering from an injury.
  • Variety: Many machines offer various angles and grips, which allows you to hit the same muscles from different angles. This can help you work your muscles in different ways, leading to more gains and keeping you from hitting the dreaded plateau.
  • Less Stabilization Required: While this can be a drawback in terms of functional strength, especially if you’re looking for a short and efficient workout, this can be a bonus if you have certain physical limitations or are still building your stabilizing muscles. This is a great way to make gains on specific muscle groups while you work on your overall strength.

Choose What Works for You

There is no “right” answer when it comes to choosing between free weights and machines. Both have unique advantages and benefits and can help you achieve your fitness goals in different ways. For beginners, machines might help build a foundation of strength and proper form before transitioning to free weights. More experienced lifters find that using free weights enhances functional strength and muscle coordination. 

You may find that incorporating a mix of both free weights and machine-based exercises can give you a well-rounded workout routine and keep you from getting bored. Ultimately, the decision depends on your goals, fitness level, any existing injuries, and personal preferences. Consulting with a fitness pro, like our certified trainers here at Forge, can help you create a tailored workout plan based on your individual needs and goals. Reach out today if you’re interested in learning more!