Male at the gym performing cable face pull exercise, while the second image is a female at the gym performing dumbbell rows. The text reads: ending the debate on what's better? machines vs free weights. Atlas Performance Health.

Machines Vs Free Weights?

Oct 05, 2022

It’s a common debate in the training and fitness sphere that free weights are inherently better than machines.

Whether it’s “because Arnold mostly used free weights” or because certain factions of the industry believe that free weights “are more functional,” the logic behind most arguments is a little flawed.

Firstly, let’s look at the context in which these claims are being made.

Whenever somebody asks “is X better than Y?”, we always follow up with another question: “for what?”

This is because in the context of absolute strength, free weights may well be the better option, especially if this is applying to powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting etc where for example a barbell squat is a staple.

However, in the context of pure hypertrophy goals, it may be that a machine option like a hack or pendulum squat may be the better choice.

So, when looking at a direct comparison and trying to ascertain which option is ‘better’ you’re always going to want to have a specific goal in mind.

Secondly, let’s address the functional aspect.

Functional is a subjective matter, again relating to context and it's a marketing play to see all these kettlebell HIIT circuits being labelled as “functional training” because someone is bouncing around like a lunatic instead of sitting down on a machine.

We could argue that this kind of training would promote more ‘dysfunctional’ movement than bodybuilding style training, solely because of the lack of regard for technique in a number of these settings but we digress.

Assuming that most of you reading this and keeping up with our content here at Team Atlas are interested predominantly in the hypertrophy and strength avenues of training, let’s dive a little deeper into those.

Yes that's right! For hypertrophy training we love a balance of machine and free weights in our clients programming. 

Firstly, we like to be able to equip our clients with the ability to be flexible so that if a machine is taken or out of order at their gym, or they’re travelling and in different gyms, they have multiple tools with which to work.

Additionally, the extra stability and fixed paths of motion a lot of machines provide can make it easier to line exercises up appropriately to target a specific muscle group.

At Team Atlas, we're also big fans of cable machines for this reason as cables can be adjusted to suit any person of any build and structure, while still providing a stable environment in which to work.

There are also certain machines that allow us to perform actions that are almost impossible to accurately mimic with free weights: a leg extension or a seated leg curl to name a couple.

That being said, there are some free weight exercises that aren't so easily replaced.

For example, with lower body training Bulgarian Split Squats and Romanian Deadlifts are a staple in our Team Atlas clients programming, in addition to dumbbell pressing for both delts and pecs.

Team Atlas clients also love getting stronger on movements such as their chin ups, hip thrusts and parallel bar dips!

Speaking of strength, generally when we talk strength, people will picture the barbell compound movements alongside the chin up. 

But once again, “best” will be contextual to HOW you want to build your strength. 

If you’re just coming back to training after a significant lay off, or you’re new to the gym in general, you’ll probably want to start off building strength on machines as they do have greater stability and less chance of something going wrong in the lift. 

However, if you want to build strength in a particular movement – a barbell squat for example – you’re going to have to perform variations of that movement!

So, as with all good questions in fitness, it would appear the answer to machines VS free weights is: “it depends.”

While there is an argument to be made that when all things are considered, machine options are probably the “more optimal” option for hypertrophy, that doesn’t mean free weights are then classified as "bad". 

The answer: be frequent to both machines and free weight exercises as they both have their pros & cons!

Check out our latest Instagram post here on "machines vs free weights if your goal is hypertrophy".

Thanks for reading,

Team Atlas