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Advantages and disadvantages of free weights vs machines vs body weight

Which is better? free weights, machines or body weight exercises? Well I’ll start by saying that all three ways to train can have their place and it depends on what your goals are, your fitness level or if you have an injury.

Rather than write a huge essay on which is better to do, I’m going to simply write the pros and cons of each and summaries at the end. Also note that this article is aimed at those using these exercise platforms to build muscle.

Free weights


  • Allows for natural functional movement.
  • Dumbbells use less space and can also be portable.
  • Can hit a muscle at any angle, use different hand grip/spacing.
  • Able to hit specific muscle groups with isolation exercises.
  • Can use light to heavy weights and vary the resistance as appropriate.
  • Full range of motion, using natural pathways (mostly but not always).
  • Often uses stabilizer muscles and stimulates more core muscles.
  • Many, many exercises with a single set of barbells/dumbbells, more variety of exercises.
  • A simple bench and set of weights can be very cost effective, allowing you to use them in the home and at any time when convenient to you.


  • Requires learned technique for proper safe form, that may need a personal trainer to teach the correct technique.
  • Injuries are more prevalent with free weights at the time of working out if improper form is used or if you go too heavy with the wrong exercise.
  • Use of heavier weights may require a spotter/helper.
  • Easier to cheat a weight up.



  • Good for hitting a specific muscle, You can often concentrate on the muscle and not the movement.
  • Can often use heavier weights. Safer as well, as no weights to drop.
  • Easier to isolate and therefore build a bigger major muscle.
  • Some exercises such as a chest fly machine will allow a constant load, as it is not affected by negative gravity as you near the top of the exercise.
  • Generally easy to use and some are quick to change resistance on as well.
  • Good for rehabilitation or unfit/low strength/elderly, as it is often easier to do, easier on the joints/ligaments and doesn’t require you to stabilize the resistance.
  • Cardio machines are great for indoor training.


  • Expensive, takes up a lot of space, unless you use a gym.
  • Some cheap home gyms are very basic, of low quality and can put you in an awkward exercise position/angle.
  • Machines are mostly limited to the angle/fixed plane of their setup. Therefore not as functional as free weights or body weight exercises.
  • Some machines don’t have much adjustment and therefore become a one size fits all machine.
  • Injuries are more prevalent with ‘machine only’ trained individuals due to the lack of not being able to work stabilizer muscles, which help with day to day activities.
  • Very little if any core stimulation.
  • Does not teach you to concentrate on your form, as the machine does it for you.
  • Limited to exercises of the machines available.

Body weight


  • Functional natural movement that can be used in day to day activities.
  • You can add more resistance by using a weight vest or weight belt.
  • Can do many exercises with no equipment and therefore do them almost anywhere.
  • Great for using in HIIT style circuits, where weight isn’t important.
  • Works your core.
  • Good for endurance training.


  • Mostly restricted to using multi jointed compound exercises, such as squats, pushups, generally horizontal push/pull exercises. This can lead people into doing unbalanced and inappropriate exercise angles to try to create changes to the exercise, which can lead to injuries to your joints and ligaments.
  • Some exercises still require the use of some form of stabilizing platform or exercises device, such as pull up bars, dip bars and gym rings.
  • If you rely on bodyweight alone, you can end up with not enough resistance and end up doing high reps only.
  • Requires strength to do a pull up and forces you to cheat if you can’t do any to begin with.
  • Those who exclusively do bodyweight exercises can over work their core muscles.


There can be an overlap between these, as some machines can allow you to alter your body position to change the angle of attack, or using cables will allow you to move your limbs in a natural plane, albeit with a fixed point of resistance. Also using resistance bands and other exercises equipment can also fall into more than one category.

Which method you choose can be governed by what’s available to you or what best suits your needs. However if you have the choice, I think most people should make use of free weights as your primary exercise tool, followed by body weight exercises. The benefits of training this these tools are great for everyday use.

Only use machines if you have a specific reason to, as mentioned in the pros section above.

Use the above tools to train in a specific way. I use it for a purpose. Don’t use it just to do an exercise, do it for a reason. See my Combo training.