Cable machines and free weights are popular strength training tools. When you walk into the gym, you may feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of options you have to include in your workout. But between the two pieces of equipment, is one better than the other?
First, a quick refresher on what they actually are. Cable machines feature a weight stack that's connected by cables to cams and pulleys and only move in one direction.
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Meanwhile, free weights are a category of fitness equipment that includes dumbbells, barbells, weight plates, sandbags, medicine balls and kettlebells. The reason they're called free weights is because they aren't attached to any cables, pulleys or weight stacks — you can pick them up and move them on your own.
"The great part about both tools is that you can build functional, full-body strength using them," Cori Lefkowith, CPT, owner of Redefining Strength, an online fitness company, tells LIVESTRONG.com. However, each has unique characteristics that make them better suited for specific situations. Understanding these differences is important to ensure you're using the right equipment for your fitness goals.
Read on to learn the benefits and downsides of each.
Cable Machine Benefits
1. There's Constant Tension
"Cable machines are designed to force your muscles to contract throughout the full range of motion [during an exercise]," Matt Tanneberg, DC, CSCS, owner of Body Check Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation, tells LIVESTRONG.com. So long as you don't let the weight stack drop, your muscles are working; it doesn't matter if you're shortening the muscle, lengthening it or pausing in between reps.
Dumbbells and barbells, on the other hand, rely on gravity to provide resistance. This means that you inevitably reach a "resting point," or a point where your muscles no longer have to contract. Think: The bottom position of a biceps curl when your arm is fully extended.
The constant tension provided by cable machines can help you strengthen more muscle fibers, Dr. Tanneberg says. This also makes cable machines an effective tool for muscle growth — especially if you want to target lagging muscles, Lefkowith says.
2. They're More Versatile
Cable machines have many different attachments and weight increments, making it a cinch to switch up your exercises and resistance level.
"For example, the origin of the weight could be at the bottom of the machine for something like biceps curls, and then it can be moved up to a higher setting to allow for triceps extensions," Seamus Sullivan, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
And if the weight isn't heavy (or light) enough, you can bump it up (or down) in a matter of seconds — all you have to do is move the pin in the stack.
"With cables, you can get an entire full-body workout done using just one machine, which is a bonus in a crowded gym," TJ Mentus, CPT, editor with Garage Gym Reviews, a company that tests and reviews fitness products, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
3. They're Beginner-Friendly
Machines generally require less skill to use, because the weights follow a fixed path. This makes them a good option for beginners.
"I prefer that beginners start with cable machines versus free weights because they'll be in more control of the exercise," Dr. Tanneberg says. You can really focus on nailing your technique. And once you've gotten the hang of the movement, you'll have an easier time once you try free weights.
4. They're Safer to Use
Cable machines are much safer than free weights. Because free weights are, well… free, there's nothing to stop them from slamming into the floor — or worse, you — should the load be too heavy for you to finish a rep.
Cable machines, on the other hand, are typically bolted into the floor, and have the weight stack going in only one direction, Sullivan says. If you fail mid-rep, the pulley will pull the cable away from you and the weight stack will land on itself. It may make a loud noise, but at least the danger is minimal.
"[Cable machines] safely isolate movement and allow beginners as well as advanced lifters to lift confidently without a spotter," Nicole Morales, CPT, a personal trainer at Crunch Fitness in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
5. They Offer More Exercise Options
Thanks to the cable pulley system, you can do exercises with the cable machine that wouldn't be possible with free weights.
For instance, a cable machine enables you to hit your pectorals (chest muscles) with a standing, kneeling or seated chest press, whereas dumbbells restrict you to incline and flat bench chest presses.
Plus, standing and pressing out from your chest wouldn't work your chest muscles in the same way that a cable would, Lefkowith says. Instead, it would be super shoulder intensive, which isn't the goal of many chest-focused exercises.
"With cables, you can hit muscles in different ways, from different angles, that you wouldn't be able to with free weights alone," Lefkowith says.
Cable Machine Downsides
1. They Have Fewer Weight Options
One drawback of cable machines is that the weight increments are set by the manufacturer. "Sometimes, the weight stack doesn't have increments that are doable," Sullivan says.
For example, you may be too strong to find a 40-pound seated row challenging, but not strong enough to jump to 50 pounds quite yet. However, those may be the only weight increments the machine offers. In instances like this, you may be better off with free weights.
2. They Recruits Fewer Muscles
While cable machines allow you to perform a variety of exercises that hit your muscles at different angles, your movement path is dictated by the machine.
"This can be good for injury prevention, especially for beginners, but at the same time it removes some of the need for your smaller muscles to stabilize the working ones the way they do during free weight exercises," Mentus says.
As a result, fewer muscle groups are recruited during cable machine exercises than free weight exercises.
3. They're Less Accessible
Thanks to their size, cable machines are less accessible than free weights. Sure, you can add one to a home gym, but this calls for a significant investment of funds and space.
And while many gyms and fitness clubs have at least one cable machine on the floor, you have to pay a membership to access it. Not to mention, you have to travel to the gym, which can be a pain if the hours don't fit your schedule that week.
Cable Machine Exercises
1. Cable Pectoral Fly
- Set the pulleys on a dual-cable machine to chest height. Stand in between the two weight stacks, facing away from the machine, feet hip-width apart.
- Grip the handles and raise your arms out to your sides, palms facing forward. Take a couple of steps forward until you feel tension on the cables.
- Step your right foot out in front of you 1 to 2 feet and come into a split stance. Bend your knees slightly.
- Bend your elbows slightly, keeping them in line with your shoulders. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back straight and core engaged, pull your hands toward each other.
- Pause when your hands touch, and then return to the starting position with control.
This move isolates your chest muscles and is friendlier to your shoulders than many free weight chest exercises, Morales says.
2. Cable Triceps Extension
- Start by facing a cable machine and situating the cable attachment at a height above your head. Attach the bar or rope and grasp it securely.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core, push your shoulders back and down and try to maintain this position throughout the exercise.
- Press the handles of the bar or rope down in front of your chest, so your elbows are aligned with the middle of your trunk.
- Straighten your elbows by pressing the cable down toward the floor.
- Extend your arms fully, while maintaining the same position with the rest of your body and keeping your elbows in place by your sides.
- After your elbows are fully extended, bend your elbows again to raise the cable back to the top with control.
This move isolates your triceps. Play around with the different cable machine attachments to target different areas of the muscle, Morales says.
3. Cable Shoulder Internal and External Rotation
- Attach a handle to the cable station pulley at elbow height.
- Grip the handle with your left hand and stand so the cable machine is on your right-hand side.
- Tuck your left elbow into your left hip and bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle so your palm and forearm are facing inward.
- Without straightening your arm, rotate your shoulder outward to pull the handle away from your body.
- Return to your starting position by tucking your left elbow into your left hip and bending your elbow to a 90-degree angle so your palm and forearm are facing inward.
- Do all reps of internal and external rotation on one arm before switching to the other.
Use this move to strengthen your shoulders and work your way up to heavier bench presses, Morales says.
Free Weight Benefits
1. They Build Your Stabilizer Muscles
With free weights, you don't have a cable pulley system to help you control the weight against the force of gravity. This means more of your muscles have to kick in to help. Namely, your stabilizer muscles.
Stabilizer muscles support joints and larger muscle groups during exercises, Sullivan says. For example, while the dumbbell bench press exercise primarily works your chest and triceps, your rear deltoids (the muscles in the backs of your shoulders) have to help stabilize your shoulder joint while you resist gravity.
"The stabilizers ensure bigger muscle groups can work efficiently yet keep the body safe when working with heavy loads," Sullivan says.
2. They Have More Weight Options
You can score free weights in practically any weight imaginable — from 1-pound dumbbells to 300-pound barbell sets. More options means you're better able to modify exercises to make continued progress, no matter your goal.
3. They're More Accessible
If you want to use a cable machine, you must go to a gym with one or invest in an at-home machine. But dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls and other free weights tend to be affordable and easier to find.
"Free weights are also more versatile and portable, allowing you to work out in any location where it's possible to bring weights," Mentus says.
With greater accessibility comes more opportunities to stay consistent with your workout routine.
Free Weight Downsides
1. They're Less Safe
It's easier to get hurt when training with free weights, especially if you try to lift a weight that's too heavy, Sullivan says.
People who attempt a weight that's too heavy run the risk of dropping it or straining themselves, two scenarios that can easily lead to injury.
2. More Technique Is Needed
"Free weights demand more overall balance and stability than cable exercises, which is a plus for lifters who already have a good grasp on exercise form," Mentus says.
But if you're still learning proper form, free weights can be intimidating. They require more awareness on your part, which means more cues to remember at every phase of the exercise. This can make it tougher to nail the technique.
3. They Can Be Inconvenient
On the one hand, free weights can be more convenient thanks to their portability and affordability. But on the other hand, it can be annoying if you need to switch between weights for different exercises.
"Accessing the dumbbells and barbells can be challenging in a busy gym," Morales says. Your workout may be interrupted by having to wait for the next available set of dumbbells or barbells.
Free Weight Exercises
1. Kettlebell Goblet Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-to-shoulder-width apart and hold a kettlebell upside down with both hands grasping the bell, keeping the weight at chest height and tucking your elbows into your ribs.
- Shoot your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel or almost parallel to the floor.
- Pause briefly, then press into your heels and push your hips forward to return to standing.
Squats are a staple movement that build total-body strength, Morales says. They emphasize your legs, glutes, and core.
While Morales is demonstrating the exercise with a kettlebell, you can also use a barbell, dumbbell or medicine ball.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press
- Begin seated at the edge of a bench with a dumbbell resting on each knee. Your feet should be flat on the floor or resting flat on the edge of the bench.
- Carefully lean back until your back is flat against the bench, arms bent, and dumbbells at chest height in an overhand grip with your palms.
- Press the dumbbells straight up over your chest until your arms are fully extended.
- Lower the weights with control until your elbows dip just below the height of the bench.
- Keep your arms close to your body and feet planted on the floor throughout the movement.
While this is a chest-focused exercise, it also recruits muscle stabilizers in your shoulders and core to help you perform the lift, Morales notes.
Once you’ve nailed the move with dumbbells, you can switch to a barbell if desired.
3. Barbell Romanian Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart with the barbell directly over your feet.
- Hinge at your hips and push your butt as far back as you can manage.
- Grip the barbell with your hands just outside of your legs with your palms facing toward you.
- Open up your chest, then push the floor away with your feet and stand up with the weight. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your chest up, bend your knees slightly and hinge your hips backward.
- Let the barbell slide down your legs until you feel tension in your hamstrings (the muscles in the backs of your thighs).
- Once you feel tension in your hamstrings, reverse the movement and stand back up.
The barbell Romanian deadlift is a key hip-hinge exercise that targets your glutes and hamstrings, Morales says. It also gets your core muscles to kick in to keep your back from rounding forward.
The Bottom Line: Cable Machines vs. Free Weights
Cable machines and free weights each offer unique benefits. While cable machines tend to be safer, better for beginners and more versatile, free weights are more accessible and work smaller stabilizer muscles.
Both tools have drawbacks, too. Cable machines can be tougher to access, recruit fewer muscle groups and offer fewer weight options. Meanwhile, free weights require more technique, are less safe and can be inconvenient in a busy gym.
At the end of the day, incorporating both cable machines and free weight exercises into your workout routine ensures you get the best of both worlds.