The Fitness Zone

Weighing In: Free-Weight Training Versus Machine Training

May 21, 2024 | by Ellyn Johnson

Barbells or weight machines? In the world of resistance training, the debate between free-weight resistance training and machine resistance training has long been a topic of discussion among fitness enthusiasts and professionals. While many sit on one side of the training spectrum, we’ll explore how both training methodologies offer distinct advantages and cater to different fitness goals and preferences. We’ll make the case that neither training style is better, and the best training outcomes can be gained when each is applied in the right context and for the right reasons. In this article, we’ll explore these two approaches, examining their benefits, drawbacks, and suitability for various individuals and fitness objectives.

Understanding Free-Weight Resistance Training

Free-weight resistance training involves the use of equipment such as dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and weight plates, which allow for unrestricted movement in multiple planes. This form of training places a significant emphasis on stabilisation, coordination, and balance as the body engages various muscle groups to control the weight throughout the exercise. Some examples of free-weight resistance exercises include:

There are numerous advantages of free-weight training. These typically stem from the fact that free-weight exercises allow unrestricted movement, placing greater emphasis on correct movement execution and technique. Free-weight exercises are highly effective for developing functional strength due to their ability to closely mimic real-life movements. Think squatting, pushing overhead, or rotating. This results in improved performance in daily activities and sports. Since free-weight exercises require a high degree of joint stabilisation, they engage a broader range of muscles, including small stabiliser muscles, which are crucial for joint integrity, injury prevention, and overall functional fitness. Additionally, free-weight training allows for a large array of exercise variations, from compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses to isolation exercises targeting specific muscle groups. Engaging in free-weight exercises inherently involves the core muscles to maintain proper form and stability, leading to enhanced core strength and stability over time. Moreover, free-weight training allows for seamless progression by gradually increasing resistance through methods such as adding weight plates, adjusting the angle of movement, or performing advanced variations of exercises.

We also need to explore the other side of the story. There are also some minor drawbacks when engaging in free-weight training, including:

  • The steep learning curve! Mastering proper form and technique with free weights requires guidance and practice, particularly for beginners, to minimise the risk of injury and maximise effectiveness.
  • Increased injury risk – Without proper form and technique, free-weight exercises can pose a higher risk of injury, especially when lifting heavy weights or performing complex movements without adequate supervision or instruction.
Margaret’s Journey to Strength and Independence

Read through the following case study to learn more about the context in which free-weight training can be highly beneficial for the general population.


Margaret is a vibrant 70-year-old retiree who enjoys an active lifestyle despite experiencing some age-related declines in muscle strength and mobility. Over the years, she has noticed a gradual decrease in her ability to perform daily tasks with ease, such as lifting groceries, climbing stairs, and getting up from a seated position. Concerned about maintaining her independence and vitality as she ages, Margaret seeks guidance on how to improve her strength, balance, and overall well-being.

Margaret undergoes a thorough assessment to evaluate her current physical condition, functional abilities, and specific areas of concern related to aging. Based on the assessment findings and Margaret’s goals, a personalised strength training program incorporating free-weight exercises is designed to address her specific needs and challenges associated with aging. The program focuses on enhancing muscular strength, balance, mobility, and functional independence to support Margaret’s overall well-being and longevity.

Benefits of free-weight Training for Margaret:

  • Increased strength – free-weight exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges, mimic everyday movements and help Margaret build strength and endurance for activities like walking, climbing stairs, and lifting objects.
  • Improved balance and stability – free-weight exercises require greater stabilisation and engagement of core muscles, helping Margaret enhance her balance and stability, and reducing the risk of falls and injuries.
  • Increased bone density – Weight-bearing exercises, such as squats and lunges, stimulate bone growth and density, helping to prevent osteoporosis and maintain bone health as Margaret ages.
  • Enhanced mobility and flexibility – free-weight exercises promote joint mobility and flexibility, enabling Margaret to move more freely and perform daily tasks with greater ease and range of motion.
  • Functional independence – By incorporating free-weight training into her routine, Margaret can improve her functional capacity and maintain her independence, allowing her to enjoy an active and fulfilling lifestyle well into her golden years.

Understanding Machine Resistance Training

Machine resistance training involves the use of weight machines equipped with pulleys, cables, levers, and other mechanisms to provide resistance. These machines typically guide the movement along a predetermined path, isolating specific muscle groups and reducing the need for stabilisation. Some examples of free-weight resistance exercises include:

Some advantages of machine-based training include:

  • Ease of use – Weight machines often feature intuitive designs with adjustable settings, making them ideal for beginners or individuals with limited experience in strength training.
  • Muscle isolation – Machine exercises target specific muscle groups with precision, minimising the involvement of stabiliser muscles and allowing for controlled, isolated movement to effectively target desired muscle groups.
  • Reduced injury risk – Since machine exercises usually guide the movement along a fixed path, they can help minimise the risk of injury associated with improper form and technique, making them safer for novice lifters or individuals with mobility limitations.
  • Convenience – Weight machines are commonly found in gym settings and require minimal setup, offering a convenient option for individuals looking for a straightforward and structured workout experience.
  • Rehabilitation and injury prevention – Machine resistance training can be beneficial for rehabilitation purposes or injury prevention, as it allows for controlled movement and targeted strengthening of specific muscle groups without placing excessive stress on injured or vulnerable joints.

As with any form of resistance training, there are some disadvantages also to be aware of. These include:

  • Limited functional transfer – While machine exercises effectively target specific muscle groups, they may not translate well to real-life movements or activities that require coordination, balance, and stabilisation, limiting their effectiveness for functional strength development.
  • Reduced core activation – Many machine exercises involve sitting or lying down, which can reduce the engagement of core muscles compared to free-weight exercises that require greater stabilisation and balance.
Sarah’s Progress Through Training and Rehabilitation

Read through the following case study to learn more about the context in which machine-based weight training can be highly beneficial for injury rehabilitation. 


Sarah, a 45-year-old avid runner, recently suffered a knee injury during a marathon training session. The injury has left her feeling frustrated and sidelined from her favourite activities. Determined to regain her strength, mobility, and confidence, Sarah seeks rehabilitation guidance to support her recovery and return to an active lifestyle. Sarah undergoes a thorough assessment to evaluate the extent of her injury, identify any underlying issues, and develop a personalised training plan. Based on the assessment findings and Sarah’s rehabilitation goals, a tailored program initially incorporating machine-based resistance training is designed to facilitate her recovery, rebuild strength, and restore function. The program focuses on targeting specific muscle groups, improving joint stability, and gradually progressing Sarah’s rehabilitation to safely reintegrate her into her desired activities.

Benefits of Initial Machine Resistance Training for Sarah:

  • Controlled resistance – Machines provide controlled resistance throughout the range of motion, allowing Sarah to perform exercises safely and effectively without exacerbating her injury or causing undue stress on the affected area.
  • Isolation and targeting – Machine-based exercises allow Sarah to target specific muscle groups and movement patterns related to her injury, facilitating neuromuscular re-education, muscle activation, and joint stabilisation.
  • Gradual progression – Machines offer a gradual progression of resistance and intensity, allowing Sarah to incrementally increase the challenge as she advances through her rehabilitation phases and regains strength and function.
  • Reduced risk of compensation – By isolating specific muscle groups and movement patterns, machines help minimise compensatory movements and imbalances, promoting symmetrical muscle development and restoring optimal movement mechanics.
  • Confidence and support – Machine resistance training provides Sarah with a structured and supportive environment for her rehabilitation, instilling confidence, motivation, and a sense of accomplishment as she progresses through her program and achieves milestones in her recovery journey.

In the ongoing debate between free-weight resistance training and machine resistance training, there is no definitive winner, as both methodologies offer unique advantages and disadvantages. The optimal choice depends on individual preferences, fitness goals, training experience, and specific needs. For beginners or individuals with mobility limitations, machine resistance training provides a safe and accessible entry point into strength training, allowing for controlled movement and targeted muscle isolation. However, as individuals progress and seek greater functional strength, body awareness, motor control, muscle mass, and overall fitness, incorporating free-weight exercises becomes essential to challenge the body in different planes of motion and enhance stability, coordination, and balance.

Ultimately, a well-rounded strength training program may integrate elements of both free-weight and machine resistance training to maximise results and address the diverse needs of individuals. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each approach, individuals can tailor their workouts to suit their goals, preferences, and fitness aspirations, unlocking their full potential in the pursuit of strength, health, and vitality.


  • McQuilliam, S. J., Clark, D. R., Erskine, R. M., & Brownlee, T. E. (2020). Free-Weight Resistance Training in Youth Athletes: A Narrative Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 50(9), 1567–1580.
  • Heidel, K. A., Novak, Z. J., & Dankel, S. J. (2022). Machines and free-weight exercises: a systematic review and meta-analysis comparing changes in muscle size, strength, and power. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 62(8), 1061–1070.
  • Schwanbeck, S. R., Cornish, S. M., Barss, T., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2020). Effects of Training With free-weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 34(7), 1851–1859.
  • Schott, N., Johnen, B., & Holfelder, B. (2019). Effects of free-weights and machine training on muscular strength in high-functioning older adults. Experimental gerontology, 122, 15–24.
Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn is an Exercise Scientist specialising in youth Strength and Conditioning. She holds her Bachelor's degrees in Science and Exercise and Sports Science. She has previously worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for Academy level athletes at the Brisbane Lions Football Club. She has a background in Personal Training, coaching a range of clientele with diverse goals, including weight loss, body recomposition as well as recreational endurance athletes. In addition to her Strength and Conditioning experience, Ellyn currently works as a Learning Designer at the Australian Institute of Fitness. Here she works as a subject matter expert in the design and implementation of a range of health- and fitness-related courses and learning materials.

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