Free weights vs. weight machines

Columnist Jessica Goldsmith tells you how to work out safely and effectively.


Resistance training, or strength training, is incredibly beneficial when creating an exercise routine.

Resistance training increases muscle mass and helps with weight control as muscle burns more calories than fat at rest.

Also, strength training increases bone density, helps to manage certain chronic conditions, and helps restore balance and lower risk of falls.

When you walk into a fitness center, there are two different options when it comes to resistance training. There are weight machines and free weights, including dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls and even body weight.

But how do you know which you should be using?

For most beginners, it is best to start with weight machines. Using free weights requires proper form, and if you don’t have someone coaching you on form you run more risk of injury. Free weights also can be intimidate to someone new to the fitness world. If you have not lifted weights in the past, you usually don’t know where to start on your own.

Machines are mostly self-explanatory, with pictures showing how to use the exercise station and which muscle group that particular function is working. But it is still a good idea to have a member of the fitness staff walk you through the machines before using them the first time.

Also, when using weight machines, you can be pretty confident that you are working the intended muscle group. A weight machine controls the range of motion that best works the muscle.

When using free weights, you must determine your own path of movement for the muscle being worked. For this reason, weight machines are also good for someone recovering from an injury. The individual can isolate the one muscle group that requires rehabilitation.

Once you feel comfortable on weight machines, though, it might be time to think about moving to free weights. Free weights require more balance and stability than machines, which will work more muscle groups at a time and create bigger strength gains. Even simply standing up for an exercise rather than sitting can make a difference.

Also, free weights better mimic real life movements. By building up the muscles you use in everyday life, you are less likely to injure yourself when completing simple tasks, such as reaching overhead for an object.

Free weights are also more versatile than machines. You can be more creative with the exercises, and have a bigger range of motion while ensuring you are using proper form.

Some good tips for exercises using free weights are to keep your spine straight, do not hyperextend any joints and use your legs rather than your back when lifting from the floor. Start with lighter weights and move to heavier ones when comfortable, enlisting a spotter when necessary, and warm up the muscles before lifting. Also, when using free weights, make sure to lift slowly and smoothly to me more effective and create less risk for injury; do not simply use momentum for the exercise.

Jessica Goldsmith is a health and fitness advocate at the Walla Walla YMCA and member of BMAC AmeriCorps. She holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and is certified group exercise instructor.


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