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What equipment is best for muscular hypertrophy – free weights or machines?

Welcome all to my next blog. This is an article about equipment that is best to use when working to add size to your frame.

What’s the difference I hear you call, isn’t it all the same? The answer, in short, is no! No it isn’t all the same. Please read on…

Before we begin, let’s pretend it’s gym day (or if it actually is, let’s not waste time pretending). You are all pumped and ready to go! You cannot wait to start sweating and grunting, lifting and shifting. So you travel to your gym, get changed, tell yourself ‘no pain no gain’ in the mirror and walk on into the weight room.

As you walk in you see one or more fellow weightlifters using the machines like the pec dec or doing cable curls. As you scan across the room you see one or more fellow gym – goers using the free weights doing suitcase squats, dumbbell bench press or barbell deadlifts for example.

A question pops into your mind…. Which is better to make my muscles bigger? Should I use the machines or the free weights?

Well, let’s first understand the difference between the two.

A machine – based exercise engages you into an established, a secure or fixed if you will, movement path or range of motion.

A free weight exercise or movement requires you to have dominance over the direction of the weight used whilst you are using it.

Some examples of free weight equipment you will see in a gym are dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells.

                                    photo by Damir Spanic (

So now that you know the definitions of both free weight and machine exercises – let us return to the topic of discussion.

So which is better? In my opinion, free weight movements are better for building muscle.

Now I’m not saying that machines in the gym are futile or impractical – they have their place in some programme designs. Three examples of why machines can be considered valuable;

  • Training stubborn or lagging muscle groups.
  • Direct isolation work for muscle groups. For example, isolating the calves or biceps.
  • Machines can, in some cases, be considered safer than some free weight activities.

So why are free weight exercises better for building muscle?

When you conduct a free weight exercise as previously mentioned, you are required to have a dominance over the direction of the equipment.

In order to maintain this dominance, this control, over the movement, the body calls upon other muscles to give support and help control the direction of travel. With machines, less muscles are called upon to offer support as they just aren’t needed.

So in other words, free weight exercises have a greater degree of muscle activation. Every single repetition of every single set of a given free weight exercise uses more muscles to get the job done when compared to a machine – guided exercise.

Take my example from the beginning of the article, I mentioned the dumbbell bench press. During the dumbbell bench press (a free weight exercise), the movement itself is considered a chest exercise. In reality, the movement requires the deltoids (shoulders), legs and the muscles of the back to act as stabilisers in order to keep the dumbbells (or barbell if that is the equipment being used) controlled and moving in the correct direction with good form.

If doing a form of chest press on a machine in the gym, then all of the above mentioned muscle groups will not necessarily be utilised.

So you see how a free weight exercise can be more efficient, because it makes use of more muscle groups at the same time, making it a smarter choice of activity if the goal is to build muscle.

If your goal is to maximise the amount of muscle mass you can build, then spend a lot of time hitting compound free weight lifts like the bench press, the squat, the rowing movements etc. Throw in some machine exercises sparingly to improve any lagging or stubborn muscle groups after.

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