Transitioning from Machines to Free Weights.

Dear Davey,

I’m in the process of transitioning from machines to free weights. When using free weights, I can’t use as much weight. Is there a formula that I can use (i.e., 100 pounds on a machine = 50 pounds with free weights)? Any tips?


First things first, let’s talk a bit about free weights versus machines.

A free weight is any object or device that can move freely through three-dimensional space. Typically, when we talk about free weights, we’re referring to dumbbells or barbells. Machines, on the other hand, typically only moves through two dimensions. They’re the large, clunky apparatuses that you’ll see in most major gyms.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Since machines help guide exercisers through the movements, they’re great for beginners and have a much lower intimidation factor. Because they assist in maintaining proper form, there’s also a lower injury risk. Unfortunately, as you’ve discovered, they provide a false sense of strength. Lifting something in real life is very different from using a machine, and so the strength gains from machines aren’t necessarily functional.

Free weights, on the other hand, engage a wider range of muscles – including stabilizers; the strength gains from free weights translate to the real world. In addition, the amount of muscle activation is greater with free weights. Though they’re more advanced and more intimidating, free weights also improve balance and are cheaper and more convenient than machines. Of course, because it’s much easier to compromise form while performing free weight exercises, the risk of injury is greater.

When making the transition from machines to free weights, it’s important to realize that you’ll need to significantly reduce the amount of resistance that you use. For example, I can squat 400 pounds on a machine – but only 225 pounds with free weights (using a barbell).

Because no two people are alike and because each machine works differently, there’s no easy formula to translate resistance from machines to free weights. It requires trial and error. I suggest starting very light, and working up from there until you reach the desired number of repetitions based on your workout goals.

As you make the transition to free weights, it’s always a good idea to work with a certified personal trainer to ensure that you’re maintaining proper form. Because the risk of injury is higher with free weights, this is a wise safety precaution. A trainer can also help you select free weight exercises that are in support of your fitness goals.


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  1. He’s hot.

  2. Hi, i’m not a physicist but i guess it has also to do with the number of pulleys.

    I’ve learned in school that using a free pulley, you only have to lift half of the weight.

    • You are exactly right. The pulleys reduce the weight you see on the stack. Single pulley machines are harder than those with dual pulleys. And then there are counterweights, which you may see near the cam. The answer to the original question is there is no conversion formula from free weights, it depends on the mechanics of the particular machine. And yes, machines prescribe a range of motion as opposed to free weights where the lifter needs to control.

      Both have their pace in your workout.

  3. Thanks, Davey!

  4. It has less to do with pullies as it does with the fact that fewer muscles are used. If you’re doing a machine bench press. You’re using primarily the chest.. with some arms.

    With a standard Barbell.. you’re using your chest, your core, your arms and taking more energy, brains and more muscle, because all of a sudden you need to do so much more to keep the weight moving, and balanced, up and down.

    This “tiny balancing act” take a remarkable amount of energy.. and in my opinion.. all of it FAR more calorie burning and positive than when using machines. Machines create bad habits.. but if you don’t have a spotter.. bench presses are safer on a machine than trying to get that one last rep all by yourself.

    • “but if you don’t have a spotter.. bench presses are safer on a machine than trying to get that one last rep all by yourself.”

      In my opinion, that’s one of the few major downsides of free weights. For some exercises, I’m much less likely to really push that last rep out if I don’t have a spotter, since the risk of injury is so much greater.

  5. In my experience machines can be just as much of injury risks, partially because they give a sense of overconfidence and partially because not everyone is built to the same proportions, so the angles and lengths of the machine movements might not be right for you. Ever seen someone squat on a smith machine? It’s a nightmare in form most of the time, because they’re fixed at whatever the angle of the machine is and that’s very rarely the exact angle they need to avoid messing up their knees. Also the bench or incline press machines are trouble for the shoulders, because you start the movement at the point of most tension (closest to the chest). All of this goes twice for anyone who is exceptionally shorter or taller than average.

  6. christopher says:

    in my recent experience-i see a combination of machine and free weights beneficial.incorporate works for weights dictate true form movements.machines are good for beginners intermediate and one advances in the weight workout all are beneficial.its true many workout free weight for advanced-but often times i see others in the gym doing machines.i do some brutal workouts-upper and lower body as well-dont discount them.

    • Some of the most serious weight lifters I’ve seen use machines as part of their workout. Not just for beginners. You can isolate more easily with some machines.