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Machines vs Free Weights vs Bands


When it comes to resistance training, there are three main forms of external resistance: machines, free weights, and resistance bands. Each provide their own unique contributions to strength training and can be used for a variety of fitness levels.



Machines typically guide your body through the range of motion from start to finish. The same line of motion is repeated with every rep. This is a good choice for beginners who want to build muscle and strength but do not have the stability and control to manage free weights. Machines allow you to target specific muscles for isolated strength training without involving surrounding muscle groups. You can often lift more weight using a machine compared to the same movement using free weights because the rest of your body has support.

Pin-selected machines are a great way for people to continue strength training while recovering from an injury. If you have a lower body injury, it is easy and safe to adjust the weight and perform upper body exercises without putting your injured leg at risk. Same concept applies for performing leg exercises on pin-selected machines if you are recovering from an upper body injury.

While machines offer many benefits, if you only train with this style of resistance, you are missing out on joint stability, neuromuscular control, and spinal stabilization under load. The strength gained from using guided machines does not translate very well to functional movement patterns.  


Free Weights

Free weights include dumbbells, barbells, and kettle bells. Your body and the weight are free to move in any and all directions, requiring the use of stabilizing muscles to control the line of motion. For safety and optimal performance, you should be able to control the free weight from point A to point B and back to point A with light to moderate weight before loading the movement with heavy resistance.

Unlike machines, free weights are extremely versatile. One weight can be used to train almost every muscle group; however, exercise selection is gravity dependent. Resistance is applied to a muscle when that muscle is moving the weight against gravity. Therefore,  you must adjust your body position so the weight is being moved against gravity. For example, pressing a barbell or dumbbell overhead strengthens the shoulder. If you want to target your chest, you must position yourself horizontally on the floor or a bench.

Training with free weights better replicates functional strength such as lifting from the floor, lifting overhead, or carrying heavy objects.


Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are great for targeting small muscle groups and come in a variety of different tensions. The farther a resistance band is stretched, the more tension you will feel. While bands are limited in the amount of resistance they can provide, they are very versatile. Bands can be attached to any stable object or body part, offering endless angles of pull or push. They are also compact and can provide a total body workout at home or when you are traveling and do not have access to a gym. 

Do not underestimate the power of a resistance band workout. This type of low load, high volume training can give your muscles a serious burn.


There are pros and cons to all three styles of training. Equipment should be selected based on fitness goal, target muscle/muscle group, and fitness level.


Questions? Leave a comment!


Written by Hannah Sweitzer, DPT, OCS, CSCS



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