Free weights or exercise machines? Which is better?

Josef Brandenburg, special to

WASHINGTON – Free weights or machines, which is better? This is a question I often receive. Like with most things, the real answer is: It all depends on who you are and what you want to accomplish with your body.

Here are some pros, cons and details on each. Hopefully when you are faced with the free weights vs. machines question, you will be able to decide what’s best for your body and your fitness routine.

  • Learning curve: Exercise machines are really quick to learn and easy to use — you just sit down in the designated seat and look at the picture on the side of the machine. Additionally, the machine locks you into a fixed path, so you can only use it in the way it is intended to be used.

    The above point is also the biggest disadvantage for exercise machines. If you have a desk job, spending one more hour of your life sitting down is not a very efficient or safe way to increase your fitness.

    When you sit down to do an upper body pushing exercise, the machine takes the place of your hips and core. This is great if you are a bodybuilder and you really need to isolate a given body part. But, if you are strength training with the goal of raising your metabolism as much as possible with the least number of exercises possible, this is counterproductive, since you are letting a large part of your muscles — and metabolism — relax.

    Lastly, machines force you to travel in only one path of routine movement. This is OK for a handful of people, but dangerous for most because we’re all built differently.

    Forcing your body to travel in an unnatural path can damage your joints over time. For example, if there is a leg machine that does not match the shape of your hips, in order to do that exercise, some other joint is going to have to compensate for that mismatch — and it’s usually your lower back.

  • Safety: This statistic surprises most people, but the fact is that injuries are far more common with machines than free weights, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Users can get pinned and trapped, and can injure or lose digits by getting them caught in the workings of the machine.
  • Results: If you seriously want to compete as a bodybuilder, then you need some machine training to be competitive and fill in the gaps in your physique. However, if you just want to be able to go to the beach and feel good in your swimwear — and you are not going shave, tan, oil-up and pose on stage — then free weights (and kettlebells and other similar tools) are far and away the best tools for you. Free weights allow you to get the most work done in the least amount of time with the most safety and carryover to everyday fitness results.

Editor’s Note: Josef Brandenburg is a D.C.area fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book “Results Fitness.” In 2004, he started The Body You Want personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the available time you have. You can also check out his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check out his fitness videos on YouTube. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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