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Free weights or machines: Which should you use?

Posted by Elizabeth Comeau  April 3, 2013 07:00 AM

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RyanHealy100.jpgRyan Healy is a personal trainer for the Lynch/van Otterloo (LVO) YMCA in Marblehead. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA, and earned her BS in Exercise Sports Science from Elon University. Find more posts by her in conjunction with the LVO YMCA at She can be reached at

One question that I get asked frequently is “what do you think of the machines in comparison to free weights?” Like many of my answers, it depends. In general, I much prefer using free weights, cables, or body weight exercises for myself and my clients but that doesn't mean that machines are useless.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of each.

Free weight exercises utilize barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc. as external resistance. The reason I hold them in higher regard is because when you move throughout life you’re moving three-dimensionally and your body has to work to achieve balance, coordination, and stabilization.

Free weights work your body in the same way making them extremely functional to everyday living. Activities like getting in and out of a chair, climbing stairs, picking up groceries, carrying children, mowing the lawn, or picking up toys are all coordinated movements and your fitness program should complement them. Over the course of the next week pay attention to what movements you perform daily and you'll quickly see that you probably do some variation of squat, deadlift, lunge, push, pull, or rotation.

These movements, which can be trained with free weights or body weight, require your muscles to work in conjunction with one another instead of in isolation. Therefore, your neurological system works much harder to stabilize, balance, and coordinate your body. You'll recruit more muscles to perform these actions, which also means burning more calories.

As a country, our occupations are becoming much more sedentary, and with the obesity epidemic we’re fighting it seems it would be in our best interest to stand and move around while we exercise instead of continuing to sit down during a workout. In addition, free weights allow you to customize each exercise you perform and can be easily used by all shapes and sizes using a greater range of motion. Not to mention, they’re relatively inexpensive and a great option to have at home for days when you can’t get to the gym.

Machines, in my opinion, are a good option for novice exercisers, the elderly, or those with injuries or physical limitations.

They’re relatively easy to use because when you sit down you know exactly what you’ll be doing at each machine (after an orientation to the equipment) and there’s even a picture with an instructional description on each one in case you forget. The fixed plane of motion and seated position leave less room for error which is important for someone who doesn’t have a personal trainer working with them or basic knowledge of free weight exercises.

Machines are wonderful for people who are recovering from injuries or who have physical restrictions but still have the ability to perform strength training without having to focus too much on balance, coordination, and stability. As someone who just had knee surgery, I was grateful to be able to sit down at several machines and still strength train my upper body while keeping my lower body supported and stationary. They can also help first timers get used to certain movement patterns which is helpful when progressing to free weight exercises.

I’d love to hear from you! Are you currently using free weights or machines or a mix of both?

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.


Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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