Free Weights vs Machines

The age old debate, which is better?

Just like our last newsletter on Ice Baths, there seems to be two camps when it comes to this question. You either have someone who swears by free weights and that machines are useless or you have the person who never ventures into the squat rack. Regardless, no bias here.

The Layout 👇

  • A brief discussion around why either should be considered

  • What the Scientific Research has to say 🔬

  • Practical Applications & Key Takeaway 💡

  • Leave us a review and let us know what you think!

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Free Weight and Machine Combo 🤷‍♂️

The Case For Each 🤔

Free Weights

No matter what side of the fence you are on, one thing you can agree on is that you get good at what you practice. If you want to compete in a sport, you need to become good at that sport. You wouldn’t try and improve your tennis game by playing basketball, the same applies if you want a big squat or plan on competing in powerlifting, you NEED to squat.

Strength in a certain movement is a skill. It requires practice, so the majority of your training should revolve around them and variations of them to address any weaknesses.

Free weights are regarded as more functional movements compared to machine variation counterparts. This is due to more bracing and supporting muscles being required to drive force. However this also comes with a trade off on fatigue. The amount of fatigue generated performing a 10 Rep Max back squat, compared to a 10 Rep Max leg press, is much greater.

If your goal isn’t to compete in powerlifting, crossfit or any strength discipline sport, instead it’s hypertrophy your after- the squat is still an excellent choice for full lower body development. Plus attaining a big squat is cool, and being able to do a full squat is something we should be able to do as humans. Someone who can squat 200kg will most certainly be able to leg press a large number, but this doesn’t always apply the other way around, due to the high skill and supporting muscles involved in a squat.


Training with free weights as a beginner presents a learning curve, if someone gets into a leg press machine they can’t really go wrong besides half repping it and bad knee cave. However if you ask someone to get under a bar and squat that’s never done it before, there is a much steeper learning curve. With the shorter learning curve (machines), people are able to push harder and much safer than with free weights. Likewise for the advanced lifter, there is still much less that can go wrong.

As stated above there is less fatigue generated from a leg press than a back squat (anyone with experience of pushing both will know). So there may be a time and place in your programme where you want to get more lower volume in without the complete overload of fatigue.

One drawback of using machines is the glaringly obvious problem that we are all built different, most machines are designed for people around average heights, if you are super tall or not tall enough some machines might be uncomfortable or offer poor movement mechanics for you.

What The Science Tells Us 🔬

A recent Systematic Review & meta analysis by (Haugen et al., 2023) looked at 13 studies that lasted a minimum of 6 weeks on a total of 789 Men and 219 Woman and compared the results. They found that strength in the free weight movements increased in the free weight strength group and strength in the machine based movements increased more in the machine based group. Showing you get good at what you practice. The outcome was that there was no difference in strength or hypertrophy other than movement specific, and that using either free weight or machines were down to personal preference.

Another Meta Analysis by (Heidel et al., 2021) produced similar findings, that maximal strength gains were movement specific between the groups. The free weight group got stronger at free weight movements than the machine group and vise versa. There was no difference in muscle power or muscle size between the groups. The Authors conclude when looking to increase maximal strength athletes should pick the movement they want to get stronger in. Individuals looking to increase general strength and muscle size can pick whichever means they prefer.

A Study by (Schwanbeck et al., 2020) looked at 20 men and 26 woman around 22-24 years of age, for an 8 week training programme, split into free weight or machine based groups. The results showed that there was no significant difference in increase in muscle gain or strength between the groups, however it was noted that the free weight group of men seen an increase in free testosterone compared to their machine counterparts.

Key Takeaways 💭

Maximal strength gains, as shown by trend in the studies show that you should train in the specific movement you want to increase strength in.

Muscle growth across both Meta Analysis and the study above agree on muscle size being similar between both training modalities.

Practical Applications ✍️

There is also no reason you cannot choose both, incorporating squats and leg press in the same training programme, or bench press and chest press. This may be a better road to take for someone looking to get bigger and stronger.

If your goal is to compete in a certain strength discipline then practice them movements!

Solid advice would be to train free weight compound movements first, then move to machine based work as you fatigue to reduce injury risk. Alternatively you could have a free weight day and machine based day. Or just do what you enjoy!

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Until next week, Happy Lifting!