When it comes to training, there are many different techniques to use determined by what your goals are. The variations can apply to training intensity, diet, routines and so on, however, one of the most common overall categories are the kind of equipment people use or like to use: free weights and weight machines.
Free weights mean that the weights are not attached to a machine (lat-pull-down, cable row) meaning it will move depending on the control the person has over them (barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells). That being said, there is one common question in the world of training: What is better, free weights or machines? The answer to this, as many other aspects of training is: it depends. Free weights and machines both have their own benefits and what to use would be related to the goals of each person.
When it comes to free weights, the main attribute is in the “free” word. With kettlebells, dumbbells and barbells, there are plenty of variations in order to work any muscle group. In the case of athletes, they can mimic the sport specific movement and make it more beneficial training for their sport. Free weights improve the stability of the joints and core stability as a secondary benefit from the exercise. This will become more important with time since every lift involves core stability.
For machines, the main idea behind its usage is isolation within any specific muscle, or muscle group. This takes focus and work from any other possible muscles involved (compared to free weights), which will help train with more specificity, however, taking away the functionality of the movement.
A good example is a bench press with dumbbells vs a chest press machine. Using dumbbells will take away any possibility of one arm compensating for the other covering any muscle imbalance, also permitting a full range of motion through the press, working on shoulder and core stability to keep the weights from moving away from the body. On the other hand, when using the machine, there is no need to focus on any of these aspects, as the machine itself is taking care of being stable and equally placed, leaving only the weight to be moved.
Regarding goals, if the main goal is to build strength, free weights would be a best option as the movements incorporate all the aspects mentioned before. However, if the goal is to build muscle size, machines would be a better option since it will solely target the desired muscles.
It is important to clarify that one option is not better than the other. Training for muscle size can incorporate free weights and vice versa. Each has its own advantages, but the goals will determine the approach used the most. For beginners, machines can be more attractive as movements are not as demanding, therefore, not having to use many muscle groups. However, as progressing, a more complete training would be accomplished with free weights, since it incorporates several muscle groups along with joint and core stability. Once again, the goals will dictate the path to take when either using more machines or free weights.