Free Weights Or Weight Machines: Which Type of Exercise Gets The Best Results?

weight machines

We all know that incorporating weight training into our fitness routine is one of the best ways to lean down, increase muscle mass, and keep weight off long-term

But when you step into the athletic club, you’ll usually see a familiar scene. The free weights people stick to the free weights, and the machine folks rarely ever venture over to the squat racks. 

Among dedicated weight trainers, there seems to be a clear preference for one type of lifting over the other. But today, we’re here to break down which weight training method is the best type of exercise for you. 

First, let’s start by exploring the perceived benefits of both weight training styles. 

In defense of free weights

Ask anyone to tell you what weightlifting is, and you’ll usually get a description of someone using free weights: dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. 

That’s because pretty much everyone has interacted with free weights at least once in their life, whether that’s in gym class, at a fitness center, or watching someone crank out bicep curls on TV.

To the new lifter, free weights are often perceived to be more beginner-friendly than weight machines. While that’s not entirely true, this notion seems to attract more beginners to the free weights, which sets them up to prefer them from the start. 

More experienced weight lifters might also prefer free weights because it forces you to engage more muscles to keep form and correctly execute a movement. And more muscle engagement does leave people feeling like they had a better workout. Scientists call this your “rate of perceived exertion,” and we’ll circle back to this later.  

But what about weight machines? 

Making a case for weight machines

Weight machines target specific muscle groups and take you through the full range of motion for the specified exercise. That means you have more assistance with each movement, which can help you hone your form and prevent injury.

So while free weights might seem like the more straightforward option, weight machines are actually designed to be less taxing on your body overall. 

So what do the studies show?

What science has to say about free weights vs. weight machines 

It might surprise you to know that it really doesn’t matter which option you choose to gain muscle mass and get stronger.

That’s because, while the rate of perceived exertion does appear higher in those who train with free weights, studies have shown there is no real difference between muscle mass and strength gained from free weights versus machine weights. 

So at the end of the day, both methods (when used consistently and correctly) will give you pretty similar results: more lean muscle mass. 

So, what’s our recommendation? 

It’s all about finding the right balance for your goals and body.

Utilize free weights to get a more comprehensive resistance session that will work major and minor muscle groups while increasing your coordination. Then, supplement with weight machines to hone in on specific muscle groups, work out muscle imbalances, or safely increase strength and mobility after an injury. 

Regardless of your preference, Santa Barbara Athletic Club has everything you ever needed to get a great workout in. Check out our facilities, or connect with a trainer to help you find the perfect mix of free weights and machine exercises for your workout routine.