in: Fitness, Health & Fitness

• Last updated: March 8, 2024

The Re-Rise of the Machines

The fitness industry tends to oscillate between trends. 

Some workout program or modality will be all the rage. Then, a new method (or the rediscovery of an old one) comes on the scene. The old modality is denigrated as dumb, outdated, and ineffective, and the new modality is lionized as the One True Way to exercise. 

Such was the case with cardio. In the 80s and 90s, slow jogging was popular. Then, in the 2000s, high-intensity interval training became the new cool kid on the fitness block. For the past couple of years, people have been poo-pooing HIIT, and championing mellow Zone 2 cardio as the superior way.

The in-then-out phenomenon can also be seen with weightlifting.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, free weights constituted the dominant form of resistance training. Then Nautilus machines were introduced in the 70s and really took off as the new, high-tech, effective way to build muscle.

And then things swung back once again.

10+ years ago, outfits like CrossFit and Starting Strength did a lot to extol the virtues of barbells and other free-weight implements. Not only did barbells become popular and cool again, but culturally, weight-training machines were written off as being dumb and essentially useless. This was the time when all things paleo were ascendant, and weight machines were painted as artificial and domesticated — contrary to the free, natural ways man was designed to move. Machines came to be seen as something you only used if you were a weenie who wasn’t man enough to hoist free weights or a bro who only cared about aesthetics rather than real, functional strength. 

The re-emphasis on barbell training was truly great for the fitness world overall. It opened up new options for people in their fitness journey. But at the same time, it went too far in removing the machine option from the table. Fortunately, things are starting to swing back once again, and there’s a shift to returning machines to the strength-training menu.

The Re-Rise of the Machines

While everyone loves a good, tidy, black-and-white narrative, the truth of things is usually found in between extremes. This is certainly the case with the machines versus barbells debate. It isn’t the case that one is wholly good and the other is wholly bad. Each has its pros and cons, and there are reasons to train with each (or both!). 

This is an idea more people are coming around to, including myself. 

For years, I was completely in on barbell training and approached it with the all-or-nothing zeal of a religious convert. 

I stopped using weight machines and focused my training on the big barbell movements like the squat, deadlift, bench, and shoulder press. 

When people asked me what sort of exercise they should do, I told them it had to be barbell training. Of course.

When someone said they wanted to use machines, I’d tell them why barbells were a better idea. 

I really enjoyed barbell training, and it became a pastime for me that provided a lot of satisfaction.

But during the past few years, I’ve reevaluated my beliefs and opinions about barbell training and the role of weight machines in a man’s fitness program.

As I’ve mentioned before, due to a bunch of factors, I’ve shifted away from barbell training and have started focusing on bodybuilder-style hypertrophy programs. I want to look jacked. Like Mike Mentzer. Or Arnold. But as a 40-something dad who isn’t on steroids or TRT.

And I’ve been utilizing a lot of work with weight machines to achieve that goal.

And guess what? At the risk of breaking Mark Rippetoe’s heart, I’ve learned that machines can be a great tool to help you get strong and pack on muscle.

Below, I highlight the benefits of weight machines and why you might want to consider using them in your strength program.

Yes, You Can Get Strong Using Machines

A common argument barbell proponents make is that you can get stronger with barbell training than with machines.

What does the research say?

Studies have found that free weights and machines are equally effective in increasing strength and muscle mass. 

Free-weight proponents might respond by conceding this finding but still argue that compound, multi-joint exercises are superior for building functional strength. There’s no set definition of “functional strength,” and to my knowledge, no studies have compared how well free-weight-built strength and machine-built strength translate to real-world or practical tasks. 

What studies that compare the strength built by free weights versus machines do find is that the strength built by any form of resistance training is specific to the exercises you do as part of that training. So, for example, if you train on the leg press machine, your strength on the leg press will go up, but this increase won’t entirely carry over to an increase in strength on the barbell squat, and vice versa. 

The same thing holds true when translating the strength built by free weights to real-world tasks.

For example, I could deadlift 615 pounds using a barbell, but when I went to help someone move a 300-lb dresser, it still felt dang heavy. I had the strength to lift a uniformly shaped barbell, but that strength only partly translated to lifting an oddly shaped object.

All forms of resistance training build some strength that can be applied outside the specific exercises trained in that program, but no form of resistance training builds strength that entirely translates to movements outside of it. 

As another study comparing the strength built by free weights versus machines concluded:

“No differences were detected in the direct comparison of strength, jump performance, and muscle hypertrophy. Current body of evidence indicates that strength changes are specific to the training modality, and the choice between free weights and machines is down to individual preferences and goals.”

The Benefits of Weight Machines

While short-term scientific studies comparing free-weight training versus machine training haven’t found a difference between the two modalities’ ability to build hypertrophy, strength coaches and trainers will tell you that the latter, when used in a dedicated, longer-term way, can definitely have an advantage in creating muscle mass. 

As opposed to free weights, machines will not only get you strong, but they’ll get you big. When I was lifting exclusively with barbells, I was very strong, but I didn’t look strong. Now that I’m lifting with machines, I’m significantly more ripped. The difference is like night and day.

The reason weight machines can offer an advantage in catalyzing hypertrophy is that they’re superior in creating “mechanical tension,” which as bodybuilding coach Paul Carter explained on the podcast, is what stimulates muscle growth. And the reason they’re superior in creating mechanical tension is for the following reasons:

Weight Machines Allow You to Get to Failure Safely

You achieve mechanical tension as you push a muscle to or as close to failure as possible. You know when you’re achieving mechanical tension if the movement of the lift starts slowing down and feeling hard. Those reps are the “stimulating reps.” They’re the ones that begin a cascade of signals in your body to start growing more muscle tissue.

Weight machines allow you to get close to failure safely. There is nothing scarier than grinding out a bench press to failure. Even when you have a spotter or have set up safety arms, there’s still a chance that a barbell with hundreds of pounds on it could land on your face or chest if you don’t execute the lift correctly. When using the bench press machine, you don’t have to worry about killing yourself as you grind reps out to failure.

Weight Machines Provide Stability

Think about how much you shift around when you do a free weight exercise, like calf raises on a step while holding dumbbells. Your foot position changes; you might start leaning forward a little or back a little. Each time you correct for these shifts, you make the lift a little less efficient. 

In contrast, when you use a calf raise machine, you’re pretty locked into position. You don’t have to worry about losing your balance or “mis-grooving” the lift like you do with barbells or dumbbells.

When you use a machine, all you have to do is focus on exerting maximum force during the lift because the movement pattern is set for you. This will allow you to get as much muscle-growing mechanical tension during the movement as possible.

Weight Machines Make It Easier to Target a Specific Muscle

By isolating a specific group of muscles, weight machines have an advantage in ensuring you get stimulating reps to the muscle tissue you’re trying to target.

Take the squat versus the leg press machine, for example. The barbell squat is a great quad exercise. I was able to develop some meaty quads thanks to years of barbell squatting. But with a barbell squat, you tend to adjust your movement as your quads fatigue so that you use more back muscle and less quads. If you’re using a leg press machine, it’s harder to do that — it doesn’t allow for compensatory movements. The machine forces you to keep the focus on the quads. 

Weight Machines Allow You to Strength Train Without the Learning Curve

Barbell lifts are an involved skill that can take a long time to master. There’s a lot to think about when you’re executing a low bar squat or overhead press. You have to do the movements just right to maintain the bar path over your mid-foot so you have the most efficient lift possible.

Heck, I’ve been barbell training for nearly a decade, and I still have days when my squat form sucks. My balance is off, or I’m not getting low enough. And don’t get me started on the shoulder press. I’m still refining my technique on that lift.

So, if a grizzled vet like me still has to refine his barbell lifts, imagine the learning curve on these movements for a rank beginner. If a guy just wants to get stronger and put on some muscle with barbells, he’ll be spending a lot of bandwidth on the skill of executing the barbell lifts. 

With machines, there’s a minimal learning curve because the machine removes the worry of stability and balance and keeping the weight on the right path. The machine does that for you. You can just focus on achieving mechanical tension.

Barbells or Machines? What’s Your Goal?

So weight machines have a lot of benefits. They’re easy to learn. They allow you to push yourself to failure safely, provide stability, and target specific muscles better; as a result, they can activate hypertrophy in a superior way. These benefits can be great if your goal is to get bigger and stronger.

Does this mean I now think machines are better than barbells?


I still use barbells in my training. I deadlift. I do variations of the barbell bench press and shoulder press. I still do a barbell squat.

Barbells are a great tool for building strength. You can easily add weight to them. You can do multiple lifts with a barbell, which saves a lot of space for a home gym owner versus getting a bunch of different machines. The barbell lifts are fun to do. And the fact that barbells require you to think about and maintain your balance during the lift can help individuals, particularly older folks, train the movement patterns to maintain their balance during their everyday lives.

I’m not down on barbells! I love barbells.

But I don’t think barbells are the end-all and be-all of fitness implements.

I now consider them one tool among others that can help me achieve my fitness goals.

Instead of getting hung up on the “purity” of my chosen form of exercise, I ask myself: What’s my goal, and what exercises will help me achieve that goal?

For a while, my fitness goal was to get as strong as possible in the main barbell lifts (squat, bench, deadlift). To do that, I needed to train exclusively with barbells.

Now, my goal is to build big muscles and chisel my physique. I use some barbell exercises for that, but I also incorporate some weight machines to achieve that goal when weight machines are a better tool.

The former and the latter can be friends. 

Don’t fear the re-rise of the machines!

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