My Favourite Training Tools (For my American readers, please excuse the ‘u’ in favourite. It’s a Canadian thing) is a blog series where I share what I think is the best fitness equipment. There are probably thousands of tools out there for fitness. Some are ridiculous fly-by-night items (I can’t help but think of the Saturday Night Live commercial spoof of the Shaker Weight) while some have stood the test of time for hundreds of years (kettlebells).

Of all the options out there, here’s the one that gets number one billing from me…

Free weights.

The most basic of the basic. The foundation of training.

First you move. Then, once you can move well, you either move more or you move with more.

There are a lot of other tools that you can use to move with more. Machines seem to be the most popular, but they are in my opinion, the least effective.

I just re-read Michael Boyle’s Functional Training for Sport, and he has a great line in there (well, one of many): “Spend less time doing exercises with less value”.[1] For most people, machine-based exercise falls into that category.

Why do I claim machine exercises have less value? Here are four reasons that I think will convince you:

1. Free weight exercises are more efficient. Consider a single arm dumb bell row (below left) and a machine seated row (below right). Both of them work the back and arms, but the one arm DB row also works the core. To do the DB rows properly, you need to stabilize your core throughout the rowing movement, forcing you to work your obliques, your glutes, and your spinal erectors.

By doing the free weight version , you’ve just saved yourself going to a core class on top of your machine-based workout. When you set up your workout program using free weights, you can work multiple muscle groups in one exercise. This is a great time saver, but more importantly, it also works different muscle groups together. In life, at work, and in sport, our body parts rarely move in isolation. The movements we do in life involve multiple muscles and other soft tissue like tendons and ligaments. But what happens if we train just one of those muscles, but another one in the chain remains weak? How will we fare when we do something that requires strength from the full chain? The weak link will become a potential injury site. Is this really a big risk? Personally, I’d prefer if my clients didn’t find out. I want them to train movements that have multiple muscles working together so that the whole chain is ready when needed.

2. Machines are either 1D or 2D; life is 3D. The new trend in movies is making it pretty clear that 3D trumps 2D every time. Or at least, 3D done well trumps 2D. I just watched Imax Under The Sea 3D last night. It was amazing. The same is true with exercise. Machines move in only 1 or 2 dimensions – they move along a straight line. But there are few uniform straight lines in life.

If you would like to experiment with this, do a bench press or a squat using a barbell or dumb bells (not the machine) and either setup a video camera to record it, or ask someone to watch you from the side. Then switch positions so you can watch your friend. Does the bar move in a perfectly straight line? Odds are, it doesn’t. So what do you think happens when you do a machine-based bench press or squat that forces you to move in that straight line? Extra pressure somewhere it doesn’t belong. Probably in the shoulder joint. The same exercise done with free weights allows movement in a natural pattern while forcing you to activate the muscles that stabilize as well as the movers. The machine performs the stabilizing for you, and not in the most joint-friendly manner. Use the free weights, and you’ll develop your stabilizer muscles, while encouraging a safer movement.

3. Exercise machines are like jeans. Odds are, the mannequin used to build it bears little resemblance to your body. Now think back to reason #2. The machine forces a fixed path of motion. We know that this path is not 100% natural because we don’t move solely in straight lines. To make matters worse, the machine was probably designed for someone who is 6 feet tall. If you are 5’6″ or 6’4″, how is that going to work for you? Will your body be in an optimal position to do the exercise relatively safely? Or will you be a pear shaped woman trying on boy jeans?

4. In my recent review of the Canadian Exercise Guidelines, I came across an interesting study about the impact of exercise on bone mineral density (BMD). The study noted positive correlation between strength training and increased BMD in the back, but not in the hips, and then pointed to an interesting theory of why that is: because most people do their strength training sitting on machines[2]. In other words, they are not weight-bearing at the hips, and weight-bearing is what we need for increased BMD. Many people are of the opinion that machines are a great tool for the senior population. Considering the prevalence – and danger – of hip fractures among seniors, increased hip BMD is a very strong argument to progress seniors to exercise without machines as soon as possible. Now please note that I say “progress seniors to exercise without machines.” This is an important point. If a senior is very weak, then starting their training with machines may be appropriate. Refer back to my initial statement above:

First you move. Then, once you can move well, you either move more or you move with more.

For a weak senior, weight machines may be the best tool to get them moving. But once they are moving well, they should start training without machines, so that they their exercise helps the muscles and joints being trained while also contributing to hip BMD.

Wondering what my 9 other favourite training tools are? Here’s the list (Click on any of the links to go to the article to find out why):

  1. Free weights
  2. Functional trainer (sometimes called a cable column)
  3. Bands
  4. Functional Movement Screen
  5. Suspension trainer
  6. Chin up bar
  7. Kettlebells
  8. Agility ladder
  9. Foam roll
  10. Sled

Elsbeth Vaino is an FMS certified personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it. DO you have favourite gym tools that didn’t make my list? Share below, along with your why.

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[1]Boyle, Michael. Functional Training for Sport. Human Kinetics Publishers, 2003.

[2]Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008. , (p. 316).


  1. The good thing about gyms pushing the machines so much is that I almost never have to wait for free-weights! I also really enjoy doing body-weight exercises. That way I can avoid the gym altogether. Of course now that I’m 6 months pregnant body-weight is ideal. I don’t know if you’re looking for other sites that really do a good job with nutrition and fitness, or if you will consider this stepping on toes. [EDIT – thanks for the suggestion Maggie, but I have removed the link. Great point above!].

  2. So true, Faye!

    I sometimes wonder why commercial gyms spend so much money on those machines. They cost more and are less effective. And they take up way too much space – space that the owners are paying for. I suspect its a matter of good sales people on the part of the large equipment manufacturers? Or perhaps they think people have become so used to seeing this stuff that the gym would be perceived as ill-equipped if they didn’t have it?

    I will do my part to continue to spread the word of machine-avoidance! Sounds like you will too. 🙂

  3. Hi Elsbeth,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on free weights and machines, i feel like i could talk about this for hours!

    I think you make a good point about progressing from machines to free weights once the person can move well. However i feel its come to a point where commercial gyms are overfilled with machines which seem self-explanatory to use. Therefore people continue to use them as they’re afraid to ask for guidance on how to lift with free weights. I also seem to come across alot of people who think that by isolating muscle groups they will spot reduce fat!

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