Free Weights Vs. Cable Machines

Close-up of a mid adult man exercising in with dumbbells

The topic of exercise equipment is one of those areas where if you ask 100 different people what works best, you'll receive 100 different answers. One such debate occurs in the discussion about which type of weight-training equipment is better, free weights or cable machines. As with anything else, both types of equipment have their benefits and drawbacks.

What is the Difference Between Free Weights and Cable Machines?

Free weights are weights that are not attached to a machine. This includes dumbbells, barbells, curl bars and weight plates. Barbells are the straight bars used in exercises like the bench press and squats, while curl bars are bent near each end, and are used for exercises like biceps curls. Cable machines are machines that employ a cable and a series of pulleys to assist you in lifting the weight.


Free weights have numerous benefits. Free weights allow you to do a wide variety of exercises, as you are not constrained by a machine. Using free weights gives you the ability to adjust the exercise to fit the needs of your body. For instance, if one of your body parts has a limited range of motion, free weights make it easier to make adjustments than a machine does. Free weights also improve your balance and coordination, as the small, stabilizing muscles in your body are activated more often because your planes of movement are completely unrestricted. Cable machines offer several benefits as well. Like free weights, you can still perform a fairly wide range of exercises on a cable machine. Cable machines don't require much coordination on your part, and with the assistance of the cables, you can lift more weight. Cable machines are also easy to set up and use.


There are drawbacks to both types of weights, however. As you increase the amount of weight you're lifting with free weights, you also increase the necessity of having someone spot you as you lift the weights. The spotter's role is to help you safely reset the weight on the bar or the ground if you cannot finish a full repetition. Because you need to provide more control with free weights than you do with cable machines, you generally can't lift as much weight with free weights as you can with a cable machine. And with free weights, you run the risk of injury if you drop a weight plate or barbell. Cable machines have disadvantages of their own as well. The assistance provided by the machine in lifting the weights reduces your reliance on your stabilizing muscles, decreasing their effectiveness. And because your motion is locked in by the machine, you risk injury by making unnatural movements.

Using Both Types of Weights

With the advantages and disadvantages of both free weights and cable machines, you can still find a use for both types of weights in your workout. Using free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells, allows you to use a range of motion that fits your body, while also working your stabilizing muscles. Free weights can provide a good workout for your major muscle groups, such as those in your legs, core and chest. Cable machines are ideal when you want to work on smaller muscles, such as your biceps and triceps, as it allows you to isolate them and put them under greater stress when training.