Machines or free weights?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JULY 27, 2021

Machines or free weights? Bench pressing or machine pressing? Squats or leg press? Dumbbell or machine curls?

Prevailing wisdom suggests that free weights are superior for muscle growth and strength gain. But is that genuinely the case? Previous research shows that free weights activate our muscles better than machines. A prime example is a study from 2009 in which free-weight squats caused a 43 percent higher EMG activity compared to the Smith machine (1).

So, there we have it. Free weights are better. Or are they?

It’s important to note that better muscle activation doesn’t mean superior growth. For instance, you might activate your quads better on a leg extension machine, but would this mean squats are inferior? I’d say no. Plus, gym progress depends on many factors, including training volume, effort, consistency, nutrition, and sleep quality.

To know for sure, we need more research that compares groups of people training with free weights or machines only. And even then, we have to deal with limitations like study design, how much effort subjects really put into their training, and their diet quality.

A 2020 study set out to compare free weights versus machines and their effects on muscle growth, strength, and free testosterone (2). Here is a quick breakdown:

  • The study had 46 subjects (26 women and 20 men)
  • Subjects were split into two groups: one training with machines, and one using free weights
  • Subjects trained each muscle group 2-3 times per week, doing 3-4 sets and between 4 and 10 repetitions
  • The study lasted for eight weeks

The results? Both groups of subjects gained similar amounts of muscle mass and strength, as measured at the start and finish of the trial.

What Does This Mean For Us?

Well, most notably, it means we can use machines and free weights to get stronger and build muscle. Of course, this makes sense because our muscles understand tension and wouldn’t go, “Uh-uh! I told you no more leg extensions! I refuse to grow.” So long as we push ourselves hard enough, do enough work, eat well, sleep, and stay consistent, we will improve in both cases.

What matters most is the context. For example:

1) What are your goals?

Do you train for general fitness, or do you aspire to build strength for a specific lift? If it’s the former, machine-based training will be more than enough. But if you want to bench press 300 pounds, you need to bench press more.

2) How well do you activate your muscles?

A friend of mine could never activate his chest with the regular bench. Somehow, despite trying different techniques, grip widths, and loads on the bar, his shoulders and triceps would always take over. Yet, when he sat down on the Hammer chest press machine, he trained his chest incredibly well.

So, it’s important to see what allows you to activate your muscles as best as possible.

3) Can you train pain-free?

I love chest dips. But each time I do them for a few weeks, I develop sternum pain. I’ve tried different dip bars and techniques, but nothing seems to work for me. So, despite dips being great, I rarely do them for more than a couple of weeks in a row.

If you find that a particular exercise causes you pain, what’s the point in doing it? Choose movements you feel confident in and those that allow you to train pain-free.

Plus, who says we need to limit ourselves to one or the other? Can we not barbell bench press and do machine dips after? Can we not squat and leg press in the same workout? Using different types of equipment can be incredibly beneficial for varying the stress on your joints and connective tissues. It’s also great for switching up the way you stimulate your muscles and can even result in better results over time.

Thank you for taking the time to read it. Until next week,


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