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Functional Trainer Vs. Free Weights | What Should You Choose?

Functional Trainer Vs. Free Weights Featured Image

When it comes to strength training and building muscle, people ask us all the time, should they get a set of free weights or invest in a functional trainer?

Both options have their benefits and drawbacks, and understanding these can help you make an informed decision for your workout routine.

Free weights have long been a staple in the fitness industry, known for their versatility and ability to work multiple muscle groups during exercises.

According to Healthline, free weights promote functional fitness and can be more accessible for home workouts.

In contrast, functional trainer machines offer a wide range of exercise options in one compact device, targeting specific muscle groups and providing stability when performing exercises.

As you evaluate these workout options, it is essential to consider factors such as your fitness goals, budget, available space, and personal preferences.

This article will discuss the benefits, drawbacks, similarities, and differences between free weights and functional trainer machines to help you better understand which option might be the best fit for your fitness journey.

Understanding Functional Trainers and Free Weights

In this section, we will explore the basics of functional trainers and free weights, their benefits, drawbacks, and the differences between these two popular strength training options. As a fitness equipment expert, I will provide you with clear and concise information to help you understand the distinctions and make the best choice for your workout needs.

Functional Trainer Basics

TKO 9050 Commercial Functional Trainer Machine

A functional trainer is a versatile fitness machine designed to offer a multitude of exercise options for users of all fitness levels. Typically featuring two adjustable weight stacks and a variety of attachments, functional trainers enable the performance of exercises that target specific muscle groups and promote functional strength, flexibility, and balance. Some key benefits of functional trainers include:

  • Variety of exercises: Users can perform multiple exercises, such as cable crossovers, rows, and tricep pushdowns, with a single machine.
  • Adjustability: The weight stacks and attachments can be adjusted to accommodate individual preferences and fitness levels.
  • Safety: Functional trainers provide controlled movements, reducing the risk of injury.
  • Simple set-up: With an all-in-one design, functional trainers save space and simplify the workout experience.

However, functional trainers also have some drawbacks:

  • Cost: These machines can be expensive due to their complex construction and multiple features.
  • Size: Larger functional trainers can take up considerable space in the home or gym environment.

Free Weights Overview

Free Weights Collections Of Weight Plates, barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, and med ball.

Free weights, such as dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and weight plates, are traditional and widely used strength training tools. They provide a high degree of versatility and freedom of movement, allowing users to engage multiple muscle groups for overall strength and conditioning. Benefits of free weights include:

  • Natural movement patterns: Free weights promote functional strength by replicating everyday movements.
  • Cost-effective: Generally less expensive than machines, free weights can be a more affordable option for strength training.
  • Compact size: Free weights take up minimal space and are easily stored or transported.
  • Variety: Users can perform numerous exercises targeting various muscle groups with a single set of weights.

However, free weights also present certain drawbacks:

  • Increased risk of injury: Without the controlled movements provided by machines, there is a greater potential for injury and improper form.
  • Slower progress: With free weights, one may require additional time and practice to master the correct technique.

Benefits of Each Option

Advantages of Functional Trainers

Functional trainers are versatile machines that offer a wide range of exercises for targeting various muscle groups. This allows you to work on your entire body with just one piece of equipment.

Here are some key benefits of functional trainers:

  • Smooth range of motion: Functional trainers provide a consistent resistance throughout your movement, making your workout safer and more comfortable.
  • Adjustable settings: These machines offer multiple adjustments to suit different heights, arm lengths, and fitness levels, ensuring a personalized workout experience.
  • Improved stability: With a functional trainer, your body is supported during your workout, which can help prevent injury and enhance form.
  • Isolation and compound exercises: Functional trainers facilitate both isolation and compound movements, allowing for a well-rounded workout.

Pros of Free Weights

Free weights like dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and weight plates provide a more dynamic workout experience, engaging multiple muscles and improving functional strength.

Some advantages of using free weights include:

  • Increased muscle activation: Free weights engage more muscle groups, promoting balance and coordination, and a more effective workout.
  • Functional training: Free weight movements mimic real-life activities, enhancing your overall functional fitness and daily performance.
  • Cost-effective: Compared to machines, free weights are more affordable, making them an attractive option for home gyms or those on a budget.
  • Portability and space-saving: Free weights are compact and easy to store, allowing you to maximize your workout space.

Both functional trainers and free weights offer unique benefits, and incorporating a mix of both into your workout routine can help achieve well-rounded fitness results. As you can see, each option has its distinct advantages, suiting different workout styles and individual preferences.

Drawbacks of Each Option

In this section, we'll discuss the disadvantages of both functional trainers and free weights to help you make an informed decision in your fitness journey.

Disadvantages of Functional Trainers

Functional trainers, while offering a wide variety of exercise options, have certain drawbacks:

  • Cost: A functional trainer can be expensive when compared to a basic set of free weights. Purchasing a high-quality functional trainer can require a significant investment upfront.
  • Space: These machines can be quite large and require a substantial amount of space in your home gym or workout area. Make sure to measure your available space before considering a functional trainer.
  • Learning curve: With many exercises available, mastering the technique for each can take time, making it potentially intimidating or overwhelming for beginners.
  • Less versatility: While functional trainers do offer variety, some exercises are not possible on these machines, and you may still need to incorporate free weights for certain workouts.

Cons of Free Weights

Free weights are fundamental in strength training; however, they do come with certain disadvantages:

  • Potential for injury: Lifting heavy weights may lead to injuries if the proper form is not used. Additionally, without a spotter, certain workouts can increase the risk of accidents.
  • Limited guidance: Unlike machines that are designed for specific movements, free weights require you to engage stabilizer muscles, which can be challenging for beginners to understand.
  • Progression and scalability: In order to progressively overload your muscles, you need to increase the weight you lift. Free weights require purchasing additional sets of dumbbells, kettlebells, or plates, which can be costly and consume more space.
  • Organization: Keeping your free weights well-organized and easily accessible can be challenging, especially in a small home gym setup.

Understanding the disadvantages of both functional trainers and free weights will help you determine which option is best suited for your goals, budget, and available space.

Functional Trainer and Free Weights Similarities and Differences

Shared Benefits and Drawbacks

Both functional trainers and free weights offer significant benefits for resistance training and muscle-building exercises. They:

  • Enhance muscle growth and strength through progressive overload
  • Offer a wide range of exercises targeting various muscle groups
  • Can be adjusted to suit individual abilities, goals, and preferences
  • Require proper form and technique to minimize the risk of injury

However, there are also some drawbacks that both types of equipment share:

  • Can be intimidating for beginners due to a steep learning curve
  • Require adequate safety precautions to prevent accidents and injuries
  • Occupies a significant amount of space, especially for extensive setups

Key Differences

Despite their shared benefits and drawbacks, functional trainers and free weights also have distinct differences, highlighting their unique advantages and potential drawbacks.

Functional Trainers Free Weights
Offer a guided and controlled motion for exercises, minimizing the risk of injury Allow for a greater range of motion, which helps to engage stabilizing muscles and enhance functional strength
Usually more expensive due to their multi-functionality and design Typically more affordable and easily accessible for a wider range of individuals
Easy to transition between exercises, making them suitable for circuit training and full-body workouts Allow for a more versatile range of exercises, but may require more time to set up and adjust during workouts

In conclusion, both functional trainers and free weights present unique advantages and drawbacks, making them suitable for different individuals based on their preferences, goals, and budget.

Making the Right Choice for Your Fitness Goals

When deciding between a functional trainer machine and free weights for your workouts, it's essential to consider your specific fitness goals and preferences. Both options have unique advantages and drawbacks, which we'll discuss in this section to help you make an informed decision.

Functional Trainer Machine Benefits:

  • Versatility: Offers a wide range of exercise options, targeting multiple muscle groups.
  • Safety: Minimizes the risk of injury by guiding your movements and providing support.
  • Convenience: Allows for quick and easy adjustments of weight and resistance levels.

Free Weights Benefits:

  • Muscle Development: Encourages greater muscle activation and growth through compound movements and stabilization.
  • Functional Strength: More effectively translates to real-world activities and sports performance.
  • Equipment Cost: Generally cheaper and more accessible for home gym setups.

Consider your training preferences, as well as your available space and budget, when choosing between a functional trainer or free weights.

If you enjoy the convenience, safety, and versatility that a functional trainer provides, and have the space and budget for it, then this option may be more suitable for you.

On the other hand, if you prefer the challenge, functionality, and affordability of free weights, and aim for maximum muscle development, then barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and weight plates could be a better fit for your training needs.

Benefits Of Having Both Functional Trainer and Free Weights

Functional Trainer and Free Weights Combination

Each option offers unique benefits and can complement the other in various ways. Ideally, budget and permitting, you would eventually have both in your home or professional fitness facility. 

Functional trainers excel in the following areas:

  • Easy to use for beginners: The guided motion of the cables helps to teach proper form and reduce the risk of injury.
  • Versatility: Functional trainers can target numerous muscle groups and allow a wide range of exercises to be performed.
  • Constant tension: The cable system provides consistent resistance throughout the entire movement, encouraging muscle growth and development.
  • Isolation exercises: These machines make it easier to target specific muscles, helping to fine-tune and sculpt the body.

Free weights also offer several benefits:

  • Engaging stabilizer muscles: As you work with free weights, your body recruits additional muscles to help control movements, improving overall balance and stability.
  • Greater range of motion: Free weights enable you to perform exercises in a natural way, allowing for more efficient training and muscle activation.
  • Functional strength: Lifting and maneuvering free weights can mimic real-life activities, enhancing your functional fitness and everyday performance.
  • Cost-effective: Compared to machines, free weights are generally more affordable and can still provide a full-body workout.

By incorporating both functional trainers and free weights in your fitness regimen, you can take advantage of the best aspects of each.

Utilize the functional trainer for its versatility and ease of use, while incorporating free weights to engage stabilizer muscles and build functional strength.

This balanced approach can lead to more efficient workouts, faster progress, and a more comprehensive fitness experience.


After comparing the benefits and drawbacks of both free weights and functional trainer machines, it is evident that each has its unique advantages and disadvantages.

The choice between the two ultimately depends on your personal fitness goals and preferences.

Both free weights and functional trainers can be beneficial in a well-rounded fitness program.

For individuals seeking to build strength, power, and functional movements, free weights may be the preferable option.

On the other hand, functional trainers can be an excellent choice for those focused on targeted muscle isolation, controlled movements, and easy adjustments to resistance levels, particularly for beginners or those recovering from an injury.

In conclusion, the decision between free weights and functional trainer machines largely depends on the goals and preferences of the individual.

By understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each, one can make an informed decision and develop a tailored fitness program that best meets their needs.

If you are interested a new functional trainer, check out our guide to the best functional trainer machines where you can certainly find one that fits your needs!

If you need some free weights like kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, and all types of affordable packages, we carry 20+ manufacturers of the best free weights for sale in all categories!

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About The Author

Matt Gemkow, the author of this content section at Select Fitness USA, boasts more than 15 years of fitness experience. He started out in sports and athletic training for many years and has since 2014 transitioned into heavy-weight training and bodybuilding. As a result, he has become one of the most experienced fitness equipment experts out there, and a valuable source of information.