It’s such a loaded question, right? But it’s one that I’ve gotten from plenty of people who are generally curious as to which strength-training strategy is better for them. The short answer is it depends on the person, their goals, and what training level they’re at. Keep reading along for the long, more detailed answer!
So let’s back up. What exactly are free weights? Dumbbells. Free weight exercises also include anything that is “free” to move in any direction without being bound by a cable, cord, rope, or band. Using them gives you the option to vary your exercises within a set, rather than having to stay on course with one movement at a time. So, in this sense, I am labeling free weights to also include equipment like benches (flat, decline, incline, utility, back extension, etc.), barbells, weighted plates, kettlebells, and more.
These aren’t exactly “free weights”, but my best workouts also include a library of equipment that you could find at any standard gym like stability balls, Bosu balls, medicine balls, slam balls, wall balls, sandbags, and more. But I guess that’s another subject for another day.
Cable machines involve a steel frame with a weight stack attached through a cable and pulley system to one or more handles. Some cable machines are specifically designed for pushing or pulling exercises, while others have different cables on either side of the machine and have more options.
The strength training equipment that you choose to use may come down to your personal preference and training goals, and I hope this post will help you build a routine or encourage you to reach out to a fitness professional to help you!
Here are the main differences. Free weights offer more variety, but less stability. There is no “resting point” while using cable machines, unlike free weights, but both are very effective with a goal to create muscle and improve strength for different reasons.
Pros and Cons of Using Free Weights Versus Cable Machines
I thought it would be easiest to break my thoughts down to a list of benefits and disadvantages to each training strategy:
- effectively build muscle and strength
- may be used by beginners and advanced level exercisers
- ensure proper lifting technique, which is essential to prevent injuries and to avoid incorrectly training muscles
- joints and levers guide you through the proper range of motion
- require continual muscle tension, on the way up and down from movements
- may fatigue muscles faster and result in expedited mass and strength gains
- will usually have pictures to show you how to properly use the machine and what muscles it’s working
- are very effective for isolating just one area (great for injury recovery)
- do not offer as much variety in movements, as you must adjust the machines for your height and strength levels
- make it easy to switch from one exercise to another with dumbbells
- make it easy to include more equipment choices like medicine balls, slam balls, kettlebells, sandbags, stability balls, Bosu balls, etc.
- build more balance and coordination than machines
- provide tension when lifting the weight against gravity, but muscle tension is lost during the downswing of the movement
- have been said to help you to get stronger faster than weight machines
- are more time-efficient with the ability to recruit more muscle groups at a time (my favorite part about free weights!)
- can feel much more natural and comfortable
- easier to work on muscle imbalances and allows the weaker side to get stronger
- this section in the gym is typically more packed, which can be intimidating
So, which type of training to I prefer? Both. Some days I will stick to cable machines, other days I pull out everything that looks enticing on the weight floor, and most days I do a mixture of both.
There are times where I really just want to sit and work one muscle group at a time. That’s a cable machine day. Other times I like to get creative and get more bang for my fitness buck with time. It all just depends.
I will say that my favorite workouts where I notice the most noticeable results in strength and athletic performance include a routine that uses both machines and free weights for each muscle group. For example, I will complete a “push” superset focusing on the chest with cable chest presses immediately followed by push-ups with a medicine ball. The next superset will focus on “pulling” by doing a cable lat pulldown and single-arm dumbbell row (on a bench). Completing the exercises back-to-back in different varieties is a great way to overload the muscle for maximum strength gains.
While I’m a personal trainer, I’m not necessarily your personal trainer, so I can’t really recommend one type of training over the other for you. I will say, however, that I include a variety of everything when creating programs for clients, and I focus on specific exercise advancements and template designs that directly coincide with their fitness levels and goals. (I would have a completely different workout program for a beginner who wants to work on stability and strength than a more advanced gym-goer who wants to build speed and muscle hypertrophy – a fancy word for muscle gain).
And then, of course, there are goals beyond that that include improving balance, flexibility, endurance, power, athletic performance, and more. It all just depends on where you’re at and what your main goals are!
Regardless of which weight training mode that you choose — free weights, cable machines, or a combination of everything and all equipment — any option will allow you to train efficiently, tone muscles, and gain strength. If you have any specific questions or would like to discuss your goals with me, feel free to comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Thanks so much for reading. Happy sweating!
Question For You
Do you prefer using cable machines, free weights, or a mixture of both?
I want to make sure that I get the right fitness equipment, but I’m not sure what to use. It makes sense that normal weights and weight machines would work out different parts of the body! I’ll have to see if I can get a good mix of both for this.
I’m recovery from several injuries and cable pulley machines appeal to me to allow for this easier than free weights even though I love lifting free weights. So I’m looking at a Life Fitness or Precor pulley cable system for my home gym. It’s better for my case and less expensive than a full set of quality urethane American made dumbells believe it or not.