Living, Wellness

Workout Machines Versus Free Weights

workout machines, fitness

Janeb13 via Pixabay

For the average gym goer, there seems to be little difference between workout machines and free weights. A bench press is a bench press no matter how you do it right? But there are subtle differences between using machines or doing things the old fashioned way. Here are a few reasons why you should think twice before using a machine at the gym.

Unnatural Movement

While workout machines are tailored to working specific muscles, they can use movements that are unnatural to the body. Leg extension machines, which isolate the quadriceps, are common in most gyms. The machine can be a benefit to targeting the muscle, but the movement creates constant pressure on the knee. Improper or continuous use can lead to nagging or even major injury in the future. This video by professional bodybuilder Ron Williams further explains the risk involved in leg extensions. As a rule of thumb, try to avoid machines that create intense pressure on joints, or force you to move in a way that runs contrary to a free weight exercise.


Machines can overcompensate, and cause the exercise to be less efficient than if you did it traditionally.  Substitutes for exercises that engage multiple muscle groups, like squats, are the biggest offenders. These machines fail to recruit the same amount of muscle as a similar free weight exercise would, and stabilizer muscles (i.e. deltoids, triceps for bench press) are not adequately recruited to the technique. A machine-based routine will get significantly less out of each exercise. Traditional exercises will also suffer from the lack of trained stabilizer muscles when you switch programs.

Faulty Progression

Workout machines create a false sense of accomplishment because of how easy they are to progress with. Six-hundred-pound leg presses, for example, are much easier to achieve than a squat at even half of that weight. Faulty progressions can become confusing later when you try to step up the difficulty of your workouts or switch to a traditional program.

Is There A Right Time to Use Workout Machines?

While routines based around fitness machines are a poor choice, using them as a supplement to free-weight training can be useful in pushing past plateaus. The fact that machines isolate individual muscle groups allows you to round out any muscles that are behind on development. Research any machine that you feel is unsafe; there is always a way to target a muscle group with free-weight or body-weight, and the convenience of a machine is not worth the potential for long-term injury.

Concerned a fitness machine you use is unsafe? Here’s a list of six workout machines you should avoid by Men’s Health.

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