Free Weight Exercises vs Body Weight Exercises vs Machines

In the most basic and obvious sense, weight training exercises can fall into 3 different groups based on how they are preformed and what type of equipment is used.

They are:

  1. Free Weight Exercises
  2. Body Weight Exercises
  3. Machines

Despite what anyone else tells you, each type of exercise can serve a useful purpose in literally every workout routine regardless of what your goal is.

However, certain types of exercises are definitely more ideal for certain people based on factors like experience level, training preferences, body type/genetics, and of course, your specific fitness goal.

So, let’s go through free weight exercises, body weight exercises and machines and look at some examples of each, find out what their pros and cons are, and see how they compare with each other.

You’ll then be able to easily determine which is best (and worst) for you.

Free Weight Exercises

A free weight exercise is any exercise where the resistance is provided by a barbell, dumbbells, or any other free moving object. Some common examples include any type of barbell or dumbbell press, row, curl, extension, or deadlift.

Basically, if you’re moving some sort of weight (like a barbell or dumbbell) from point A to point B, and that weight isn’t supported by or attached to anything other than you, it’s most likely a free weight exercise.

PROS

  • Completely natural movement. Allows you to move through a range of motion that is completely natural for your specific body. Nothing is restricted or put into any sort of fixed position that may not be perfect for you body.
  • Uses additional muscles. Since you are in full control of the weight and stabilizing the entire movement itself, you are therefore recruiting the use of various stabilizer muscles that tend to go unused with machines.
  • Extremely functional. Free weight exercises allow you to mimic actual movements that you actually do in real life, and in the exact manner you’d actually do them.
  • Ideal for home use. If you happen to do your weight training at home, a barbell (or dumbbells), some weight and a bench is all you need to be able to perform dozens of different exercises in your house.

CONS

  • Usually harder to learn at first. Especially when compared to machines (and to a lesser extent, body weight exercises), it’s usually a little harder to learn proper technique as a beginner.
  • Higher potential risk of injury. There is a risk of injury with EVERY type of exercise, but the potential may be a little bit higher with free weights than others.

Body Weight Exercises

A body weight exercise is any exercise where the resistance is provided by your own body weight.

Instead of moving a barbell or dumbbell from point A to point B like you would with a free weight exercise, a body weight exercise requires moving your own body from point A to point B. Some common examples include push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, and dips.

PROS

  • Completely natural movement. Allows you to move through a range of motion that is completely natural for your specific body. Nothing is restricted or put into any sort of fixed position that may not be perfect for you body.
  • Uses additional muscles. Since you are in full control of of the weight (which is your body) and stabilizing the entire movement itself, you are therefore recruiting the use of various stabilizer muscles that tend to go unused with machines.
  • Extremely functional. Body weight exercises allow you to mimic actual movements that you actually do in real life, and in the exact manner you’d actually do them.

CONS

  • Sometimes too hard/impossible. For certain people (especially beginners and people who are overweight), body weight exercises like pull-ups and dips are extremely hard and in some cases just impossible to do. With free weights or machines, if it’s too heavy, you can just use less weight. With a body weight exercise, you’re kinda stuck with your own body weight. (I will mention however that there are ways around this issue to some degree, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Machines

A machine exercise is any exercise that works on a fixed path with the weight (and usually the entire movement itself) stabilized for you by a machine.

Rather than holding the actual weight that is providing the resistance and moving it from point A to point B (like you are with free weight exercises), you are instead holding handles that are in some way attached to some form of weight, and you’re moving that from point A to point B.

Some common examples include any type of machine press, row, curl, extension, leg extension/curl, and leg press.

PROS

  • Usually easier to learn and do. Using a machine is usually as simple as sit down, grab the handles and move them in the only direction they are capable of moving. Especially in the case of beginners, this is the easiest form of exercise to learn.
  • Can sometimes be safer. While you can definitely still get injured using a machine, there is usually less risk of injury when compared to free weight or body weight exercises.

CONS

  • Unnatural movement path. A fixed, unnatural movement path forces you into positions that in many cases are not right for many people. At best this can be uncomfortable and make it hard to progress and properly train the target muscle. At worst, it will eventually cause an injury.
  • Least functional type of exercise. The carryover between machines and movements you actually do in real life is lesser than it is with either free weight or body weight exercises.
  • Does part of the work for you. While you are definitely still working the target muscle and moving the weight (or in this case, the handles) from point A to point B, the entire movement is being stabilized by the machine itself and therefore preventing you from using various stabilizer muscles.
  • Not ideal for home use. Machines are the most expensive (by far), take up the most space (by far), and are the least usable (one machine is typically only capable of one exercise, whereas a barbell or dumbbells can be used for dozens).

So, Which Type Of Exercise Is Best For You AND Your Goal?

In most cases, most of the time, this is how it breaks down based on your specific goal:

Performance Related Goals

If your primary goal is performance related (increasing strength, improving performance, etc.), then the majority of your workout routine should be comprised of free weight and body weight exercises. Machines should usually be kept to a minimum, or possibly none whatsoever.

Looks Related Goals

If your primary goal is looks related (building muscle, losing fat, getting “toned,” etc.), then really all 3 types of exercises can serve as suitable choices for your workout routine. In general however, free weight and body weight exercises are the ideal first choice, with certain machines being a perfectly fine secondary option.

Silly Myths

Oh, and before ending this, I figure I should quickly mention the extremely idiotic myth that “free weights are for adding bulk” and “machines are for toning up.” That’s complete and utter bullshit.

My post about muscle tone explains this in more detail, but the big point is that free weight exercises, body weight exercises and machines are all 100% equal in terms of being for “bulk” or “tone.” There is no difference whatsoever.

What’s Next?

The next part of the exercise selection process is learning the difference between compound and isolation exercises and determining which is best for you and your goal. Let’s go…

Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises: Which is best?

(This article is part of a completely free and awesome guide to creating the absolute best workout routine possible for your exact goal. Check it out: The Ultimate Weight Training Workout Routine)

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