Dumbbells vs Machines: Which is Better?

Dumbbells vs gym machines - which is better?

When you’re at the gym do you go from machine to machine or head straight to the weights area? And which is actually best?

Today we’re talking Free Weights versus The Machines.

Terminator was on the TV the other day and when I look at the title of this post, I can’t help but imagine a scenario with huge bodybuilders fighting the machines by throwing dumbbells at them. Arnold Schwarzenegger caught in the middle. Surely that’s gonna be the plot of Terminator 6 or whatever number they’re at now.

Although I’m sure you think this post has been informative so far, it’s time to talk about the real topic: Dumbbells or gym machines?

Dumbbelss vs Machines - Which is better? Machine leg press vs holding dumbbells
Image credit: Everkinetic (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image credit: Everkinetic (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Let’s start with dumbbells, hand weights, whatever you call them.

You know, the short things with weight at each end that you lift up and down, then put pack on the rack (in the right order – C’MON PEOPLE! It’s a real pet peeve of mine, don’t tell me I’m the only one?)

Like pretty much any type of equipment there’s both pros and cons to using dumbbells. By exploring them and the alternatives, it will be easier for you to make an informed decision on what is right for you and your workouts.

PROS – dumbbells

The pros of using dumbbells in your workouts includes

  • Natural movement patterns. The exercises imitate movements from sport and every day life.
  • Large transferability to sport and life with functional exercises,  as per above.
  • Possibility of both compound and isolation exercises.
  • Challenge the stabilizing muscles around the joints.
  • The same pair of dumbbells can be used in a ton of different exercises.
  • Challenges your balance and coordination, how well the muscles work together.

CONS – Dumbbells

The cons of using dumbbells include:

  • Increased degree of difficulty. Beginners have to learn to tighten the core, keep good posture etc. to do the exercises properly.
  • Time investment. It takes time to learn the proper technique
  • A partner can be necessary (aka a spotter), especially when you’re lifting very heavy.

This also partly applies to barbells. The main difference is that many barbell moves are bilateral while dumbbell moves often are unilateral. 

So what does that mean?

Bilateral moves are symmetrical in the sense that you’re doing the same thing at the same time with the right and left side (like a squat). Unilateral moves are assymmetrical, and the right and left side move independently (like split squats). Typically, unilateral moves challenge the stabilising muscles more, and doesn’t allow your strong side to compensate for your weaker side. Bilateral on the other hand might allow you to lift more weight, and challenge the big muscles more.

Gym machines

It’s not hard to find trainers that will claim workout machines are completely unnecessary; it’s an unnatural movement pattern, the stabilising muscles aren’t activated. But I have to disagree. That’s a very narrow-minded opinion. Machines are an amazing invention, especially for some specific groups of people.

PROS – Machines

The pros of using gym machines include:

  • Works the muscles isolated
  • Little to no requirements when it when it comes to coordination and balance
  • Most machines have instructions on the site, telling you how to use it correctly
  • Mentally good for beginners, as the machines feel less dangerous and intimidating, thus giving them a good experience with resistance training. In the long run it will give them a good foundation before progressing to free weights.
  • For some people it might be the only option, including…
    • People recovering from injury
    • People who are weak and fragile because of age and/or illness
    • People who lack balance and/or coordination
    • People with some disabilities

CONS – Machines

The cons of using weight lifting machines include:

  • Unnatural movement patterns. Many machines lack the functionality that free weight exercises have. You’re getting strong in movements that aren’t directly useful in every day life.
  • The above is especially true if the machine is not adjusted to your size.
  • Does not challenge your coordination or balance.
  • You can only do one exercise pr machine. Maybe a few more at some machines. Nevertheless, if you’re building a home gym, free weights are clearly the better choice if you want some variety.
  • Can give a false sense of comfort. Even with machines it’s possible to have bad form. One I frequently see is in the leg press machine. Some people tend to lift their lower back from the seat by bending way too much at the hips and thereby compromising their spine. Rule of thumb: If you can smell your crotch, you’re not doing it right or you really need a shower.

That rule of thumb probably applies to other areas of life too…

As you can see, there’s no right answer to which is better – it all depends on who you are and what you want from your workouts.

I hope this can help you make decisions when you plan your next workout. No matter what you choose, correct form is essential, and always more important than lifting heavy.

Do you prefer dumbbells or machines? Let me know in the comments!

Gif that says lots of love, Anne xx

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Dumbbells vs Machines: Which is Better?Dumbbells vs Machines: Which is Better?
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  1. I prefer dumb bells, gives me more flexibility. hehe. And yes its my pet peeve as well when people don’t re-rack the weights in order. I will be the one putting them in order oh god -_-

  2. says: Raquel

    I like everything, honestly. My routines are a mix of both things, and my instructor has included TRX in my new routines, which I enjoy very much because it feels VERY challenging. I do have some balance problems with dumbbells still xD

  3. Really interesting and informative post. I use machines at the gym, dumbells at home or in gym classes. Always amazes me how many different moves can be done with dumbells!