From what I have been told, machines are not recommended for strength training, because they isolate muscles and thereby exclude the smaller stabilizing muscles from developing together with the major muscles.

I can see this point. Doing a barbell bench press feels entirely different from using a machine simulating the same movement.

The question, then, is: What justification is there for these machines at all? Should one generally prefer free weights over machines or are there plausible use cases where a machine is the better alternative?

3 Answers 3


From the most stable to the least stable, you have:

  1. Machine
  2. Barbell
  3. Cable
  4. Dumbbell

Machines are the most stable. They work a major muscle and neglect the the small stabilizer muscles. On the other end of the spectrum, you have dumbbells which require a fair amount of stabilizer muscles. One is not better than the other. It all depends on what your goals are. Below, we have the advice of the most successful bodybuilders saying that both stable and unstable equipment are necessary for growth.

Dexter Jackson

2008 Mr. Olympia on choosing the right equipment

dexter jackson

What I'm a firm believer in is barbells build mass. OK. Dumbells - you can build a little mass, but it's mostly for shaping. Say for example, you're doing 500 lb bench press. You're not going to get 250 lb dumbbells. You can't do that. The more weight you do, the bigger you're become because it's heavier. Therefore, barbells, to me is a mass builder of every exercise.

With machines, you can even do more weight than a barbell because no energy has to be expended to stabilize the weight. So by the transitive property, machines are great for mass building.

Dorian Yates

6 time Mr. Olympia on machines vs. free weights (4:15)

Dorian Yates

There's a debate. What's better? Machines or free weights? Neither. They're both tools you can use. As long as you're working a muscle to failure, it doesn't matter if it's a machine or free weight.

There's advantages and disadvantages. The advantage with free weights, of course, is we're all built differently. We're all different heights. We all have different lengths of limbs. Different attachments and everything. Whereas a machine is just built in one way. If you lift a free weight and I lift a free weight, we'll take a slightly different pathway because or bodies are built differently. So that's the advantage of a free weight . It works with the individual's body.

With machines, you're locked into a groove. The advantage of a machine is you can isolate without too much outside involvement. Especially if you have injuries, they're very useful. You have more control if you want to do extra negatives and so on. If you're doing a free weight bench press it's very awkward to do extra negatives at the end. It's just not practical. It's not really safe. With a machine, you can get your training partner to lift to the top and control it. It's safe.

I use both in my training. I use free weights and I use machines. The main thing is the effort you're putting in, not the tools you use.

To summarize, Dorian says machines are better if need to work around an injury or need to do advanced techniques like forced negatives. On the other hand, free weights feel more natural and work for any body type. From personal experience, I feel the same about Dorian on the natural feel of free weights. When using bench press machines, I often find my wrists contorted into awkward positions at the peak of the movement.

Arnold Scwarzenegger

7 time Mr. Olympia in his Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding


For a beginning bodybuilder, the majority of training should be done with free weights. We live in a technological age, and the exercise machines being designed and manufactured today are better than ever. But your muscles were designed by evolution to overcome the pull of gravity rather than to work against machine resistance, so the biggest gains you will make in building size and strength will come from pumping iron - using a barbell and dumbbells - rather than exercising on machines.


Additionally, a report in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicates that testosterone production is increased when you do large-muscle-group, free-weight exercises in which you use and coordinate a number of major muscle groups at the same time, like the Squat, Deadlift, and exercises you see performed less often today like the Power Clean. Testosterone production is not similarly increased by isolation free-weight exercises - or training on machines.


Again, let me emphasize that I am not against machines. ... We've been through air- and water-resistance machines, and are now back to more basic design, bt a hundred times better than ever before.


I use a lot of machines in my own workouts. It's obviously impossible to get full thigh development, for example, without a Leg Extension or Leg Curl machine or to fully isolate the inner chest without using a pec deck, or cables. And it is possible to shock the body into accelerated growth if you occasionally use a machine or circuit of machines you are not used to in place of your normal free-weight exercise for that body part. But I believe a good bodybuilding program should include no more than 30 to 40 percent training (at most!) with machines.

To summarize, Arnold believes that machines add variety to a workout and variety is the key to growth. He recommends using more free weights than machines because our bodies have evolved to grow better with free weights. He also points out many of the things Dorian Yates advocates, but I left them out of my quoting.

  • 1
    JoJo - great and deep answer.I'm a firm believer in free weights for beginners and more strength focused workouts, since they tend to give a better overall workout - making the body work the way it would in real life BUT realize the use of machines for specific (hate to use the work - weak spot) focus. I think the people you've listed/quoted above say about the same thing... Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 23:12
  • 1
    One thing to note is that body builders have different aims from most people - they focus much more on building muscle mass.
    – Casebash
    Commented Jun 17, 2012 at 2:44

Machines are useful for bodybuilding, specialized movements, and working around specific injuries. For people not doing those things (which is most people) machines are not necessary and distract from better training tools.

Free weights are the simpler tool. They develop body awareness (proprioception) and have better carry-over to athletics and general health.

However, people who need to work a very specific movement that is hard to execute with free weights can use machines to isolate that very specific movement. For example, machines can create resistance sideways, downwards, and on diagonals, which cannot be replicate by gravity. That can be useful for isolating a small muscle, such as when bodybuilding or avoiding a pain point caused by an injury.

  • I don't know if it's just me or if it happens to other people, but I don't sense any of the "carry over" benefits. I lift weights 5 days a week but when I'm doing real world activities like moving furniture, repairing the house, or holding a squirming kid, I often get winded and extremely sweaty. On the other hand, I need to workout for about 45 minutes before I break out in a big sweat. The real world situations have you contorting your body in strange angles and holding objects at a different cadence than your typical 3 sets by 8 reps.
    – JoJo
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 22:55
  • @JoJo I see two possibilities. One, there's carryover and you're just not feeling it. This often happens to me when I don't take a break from squats: stairs are still hard! Then I take a week off from lifting, my body recovers, and BOOM stairs are like escalators. Two, maybe you're not doing cardio or something, and that's what's making real life hard? Except I bet you do cardio. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 5:15

I say your muscle fiber doesn't know if you are using a machine or free weights. All it knows is to adapt to the resistance that is being put on it. It does this by recruiting hopefully the most muscle fibers. The only difference I can see is range of motion. And if if you ask john little , and Pete Sisco they claim full motion as a need is a myth for muscle fiber recruitment. I am not saying that it is true what they say. I tend to agree with Dorian Yates in the fact its not the tool its the intensity.

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