Ask a Trainer: Should I Use Free Weights or Machines?

Nike master trainer Holly Rilinger talks about the pros and cons of these forms of strength training.

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When it comes to cardio, whether you’re on the bike, treadmill, or elliptical, you’re still going to sizzle some serious calories. One cardio machine isn’t necessarily better than the other. (Learn more about the pros and cons of using a bike vs. elliptical vs. treadmill here.) But what about when it comes to weight training? Is it better to work your way around the machine circuit or free-style it with free weights?

First things first, both machines and free weights are resistance training, says Holly Rilinger, Nike master trainer and author in New York City. When you strength train with weights, you're using your muscles to work against the extra pounds, which is called resistance. This strengthens and increases the amount of muscle mass in your body by making your muscles work harder than they're used to.

No single exercise or piece of equipment is best for everyone. Choosing between free weights and weight machines will depend on personal preference, your fitness level, and your fitness goals, but both are effective forms of strength training.

Rilinger lays out the key differences in each:


  • Weight machines are designed to isolate and work individual muscle groups.

  • Machines are not as form-driven, according to Rilinger. In other words, when you’re using a machine, it helps you find the correct form (unlike free weights where there’s no guide). So, if you are just starting out, using a machine may be a safer way to strength train if you’re not familiar with proper form. 

Free weights

  • Free weight exercises will often require more energy, stability, and core engagement. They work more muscles at once, which makes using them more of a full-body dynamic workout, according to Rilinger.

  • With free weights, you need to pay attention to form so you don’t injure yourself. Rilinger suggests working with a trainer if you are a beginner to ensure you are doing each exercise correctly. 

The takeaway here is that there’s no hard and fast rule about which is better. Both are excellent forms of strength training and are an important component of any workout program, says Rilinger. No matter what your goal, Rilinger suggests aiming for two to three days of strength training a week.

As a beginner, starting with weight machines is a great foundation. As you transition into “gym bunny,” you may want to add free weight exercises into your regimen. Rilinger says if you know what you are doing, incorporate both forms of resistance training into your workout if you can. It’s important to find a system that you enjoy and works for you, which will help seal in long-term practices.