Best Bang For Your Buck:

Free Weights Or Machines?

As a frequent gym junkie, I have always had one constant nagging question: "To get the maximum results for my effort spent, should I use free weights or exercise machines?" Sure, Crossfitters almost exclusively use free weights and perhaps the occasional rowing machine, but the meathead on the other side of the gym could curl a truck and I've never seen him use anything that doesn't have a cord attached.

As with most things in life, I have found that the answer is at neither extreme, but somewhere in the middle.

Free Weights Mimic Real Life

Our muscles are often working in ways that we neither expect nor ask them to. Workouts as simple as jumping jacks not only engage your thighs, calves, glutes, and shoulders, but even your abs start getting involved.

In fact, any time your arms go over your chest, your core begins to engage to balance and stabilize your body. An exercise as simple an air squat with your arms held above your head engages these wonderful core muscles while, say, a Smith Machine does not engage these muscles since the stabilization is often done for you.

Free weight exercises are generally more similar to real life movements than exercise equipment. For this reason, free weights can often have a slight edge over exercise equipment when it comes to functional strength.

Exercise Equipment Isolates An Area

It is no accident of nature that most of the meat heads in the gym (the guys who are more or less a walking muscle) spend a lot of their time near the machines.

Equipment is excellent at picking one area and working it to incredible levels.

Exercise machines are very often formed with the purpose of working one muscle and one muscle only. There are machines that work only biceps, machines that work only calves, and machines that work everything else in between to exclusivity.

If your intention is to have cannons for arms, you probably won't do too bad going for the bicep curl or tricep extension machine. Some muscles are notoriously difficult to work in real life circumstances or with free weights. Thankfully, a handy piece of gym equipment can probably scratch that itch.

Free Weights (Usually) Make For Better Cardio Workouts

This rule is not so much a rule as it is a generalization.

Since free weight exercises force your body to work a target area as well as  balance and stabilize, free weight workouts have a higher energy expense than the same workout done on exercise equipment. 

In other words, snatches with a barbell will make you suck down more wind than snatches on something like a Smith Machine.

The reason behind this is simple:

Free weights force your body to activate additional muscles for balance and stabilization. Since more muscles are being used to balance and stabilize, more energy is needed to pull the movement off. In the human body, more energy always means more oxygen is needed.

More energy expended always means that your body is going to be improving something during your next rest period.

This is also the reason why most people are not capable of lifting as much with free weights as they are with machines. With a machine, the work load is almost entirely isolated to a few specific specific muscles. Free weights can employ the much more of the body to pull off a maneuver. The more the whole body is involved, the less a person will be hindered by the weakest muscle.

Think of your body as a chain. Since all chains are only as strong as their weakest link, your body will probably not be able to lift as much in real life circumstances as it is able to life while you're using a machine.

So next time your buddy is telling you how much they've been lifting, be sure to specify whether it was on a machine or not before you start any hasty competitions.

​​Machines Can "Skip" Injuries

​One of my​ favorite things about exercise equipment is that almost every movement imaginable can be modified to avoid an injured area.

​Despite his injury being multiple years ago, my dad still struggles with shoulder pains. As a result, he is almost completely unable to do many free weight exercises that I do.

His salvation is in a piece of exercise equipment.

​While he may be unable to do push ups or military presses, he is more than capable of getting on a piece of exercise equipment and (gently) working his injured shoulder. Since the shoulder is necessary to work the chest and pretty helpful in working triceps, biceps, and back, my dad is able to get a full workout in today, despite his injury, because of a piece of machinery.

If you struggle with an injury, there is almost certainly a way of modifying exercise equipment so that your injury can be worked around and the damaged area still strengthened.​

​​Some ​Equipment Is More Portable And Versatile Than Free Weights

​​While some workout equipment is ​very ​specific in what it works (Read: calf-raise machine), others are the exact opposite.​​​ Systems such as Bowflex have allowed people to get high resistance full body workouts from home, while other systems like rowing machines (we reviewed the best in the world here) help people in all walks of life lose weight quietly, quickly, and inexpensively from home.

Most of my working out is done at an actual gym, but for those who are ​unable to go to a gym, can't afford a membership, or those who travel a lot, exercise equipment has come up with the perfect solution: get a gym in your home.

My personal favorite way to do this is with inexpensive TRX Cables that I ​use while traveling, at my local park, and in my basement (if I'm ​really​ feeling antisocial).​​​

The Verdict

Both free weights and exercise equipment can be useful in your quest for fitness. Free weights are often more of a whole body ordeal and equipment can either isolate a muscle or be used to work multiple parts of your body, depending on its function.

Both free weights and exercise equipment have their roles in working out. You should ask yourself what you want to accomplish and what you want your body to look like.


​Thanks for reading! I think however you decide to work out, any exercise is better than none. And a cheap, easy exercise that can be tailored for any fitness level is running.

Tell us in the comments below what your favorite way to work out is!

Stay awesome. Have a great day.

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Copyright Elite Happiness. This content may be freely reproduced in full or in part in digital form with full attribution to the author and a link to Please contact us for permission to reproduce this content in other media formats.

Founder and Editor at Elite Happiness! I love my life and want to help you love yours too. If this isn't your favorite website on the entire internet, let me know why in the comments so I can make this your favorite place to be. As always, stay awesome. Have a great day.

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