By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 November 2016)
Dumbbells and barbells (free weights) maintain consistent resistance throughout the entire range of motion associated with an exercise, whereas machines vary resistance, taking the strain off weaker supporting muscles and allowing you to lift heavier weights. They also restrict movement to one plane, whereas free weights allow for movement along multiple planes, which causes additional muscles to be recruited as part of the process, not only to move the weight, but also to balance the rest of your body.
Free weights are better for building functional fitness
Free weights work not only the target muscle, but also the muscles that support it, which develops better functional fitness in the long run and reduces the risk of injury. In other words, using free weights helps to build the type of strength that is useful for sports and meeting the physical challenges of everyday life (for example, running across an uneven surface without falling, carrying heavy things, etc.).
Another advantage of free weights is that you can buy a set to use at home to skip the gym commutes and fees. If you have limited space, there are adjustable sets available that allow two dumbbells to provide a wide range of weights.
When to use machines
Although free weights are more effective for building functional fitness, there are situations where machines are better. Because they stabilize areas of the body not being directly targeted and guide you through the movement to reduce the risk of poor form, they are useful for beginners and those recovering from certain injuries.
Should you use an exercise ball with free weights?
Strength training on an inflatable exercise ball causes your body to recruit core muscles for stabilization. This is great for building core strength and stability, but not as effective for building strength in other areas of the body because you won’t be able to lift as much weight. If you want to incorporate this strategy, mix in some ball training with regular training, but don’t do your weight lifting exclusively on the ball unless core training is your primary goal.
- Hutchinson, A., PhD. (2011). Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. HarperCollins.
- Karp, J., PhD. (2003). Weight Training Q & A [PDF]. IDEA Health and Fitness Association.
- The American Council on Exercise. (2016). Free weights vs. Strength-training equipment. ACEFitness.org.