Building Muscle: Machines vs Free Weights for Increasing Size and Strength


So you’ve decided you want to get bigger, stronger and look awesome. Great! As any respectable personal trainer will tell you, the very first step in strength training is to build an exercise programme that will allow you to achieve your fitness goals in the most safe and efficient manner.

In this article I will answer a question I hear often: Which method is better for increasing your size and strength – free weights or machines?

Instead of keeping you in suspense, I’ll give you the answer right away: Generally, free weights will build your muscle faster than machines. This doesn’t mean that your exercise programme should never include machines, both have their advantages. But when it comes to building muscle, the research says free weights are the better option.


The Advantages Of Free Weights

Free weights utilise and build your core strength. When doing a free weight exercise you have to stabilise the weight to give yourself the steady platform from which to apply force. This stabilising work comes from the core and depending on the exercise this can provide a great core workout (think six-pack without the sit-ups).

Free weights provide flexibility that fixed-weight machines do not. There are hundreds of free weight exercises and each can be tailored and adjusted to meet your specific needs, training experience and goals. You just don’t get this flexibility with machines.

Free weights are much more accessible than big, expensive machines. With all exercise what’s most important is that you just do it. You can make a great workout with a couple of dumbbells and your body weight in your garage. Free weights give you the flexibility to train any time in any location with low expense.

Training with free weights enhances your coordination, motor control and joint stability. This adds up to you being more athletic and less vulnerable to injury.

Studies published in the 1995 and 2009 issues of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirm that training with free weights leads to increased muscle activity and IEMG rates, compared to similar exercises done with machines. This adds up to bigger and faster size and strength gains for you.


The Major Advantage Of Resistance Machines: Safety

While perhaps less effective, machines are easy to use and safe. For those with little training experience machines can be a great way to start training and build a foundational level of strength. They’re also great for beginning to create workout habits that can carry you to the ultimate achievement of your strength goals.

This is twinned with the drawback of free weights: without proper technique you can be open to injury. Don’t get us wrong: weight training using free weights is perfectly safe, provided it is done well. Don’t let this put you off training with free weights. The advantages are big enough to make learning to use them well worth it. Watch exercise videos, read books and articles, hire a personal trainer. Whichever way you go about it, it’s worth spending some time to learn to exercise well. You’ll get stronger and bigger faster if you do.

At Nathan Towle Personal Training almost all of our strength training utilises free weights over machines. We use machines in specific instances such as isolating individual muscles for very specific hypertrophy and rehabilitating our athletes from injury. For almost everything else we use free weights, I think you should too.