Which is Better: Barbell, Dumbbells, Cables, or Machines?

Regardless of your age or gender, it’s important to incorporate strength training into your fitness regimen, but with so much equipment at the gym, how do you know if you should use barbells, dumbbells, cables, or machines? When I give an orientation to newmembers, I show cables, dumbbells, and body weight exercises as these have no labels explaining its use, recruit more muscles, and are faster to setup. However each, including machines, has both advantages and disadvantages and what you will use will depend on your goals, equipment availability and injuries you might have.


A barbell is a steel bar, typically 7 feet long, about one inch in diameter that weighs 45lb.Weight plates of varying weight are added to each end and multiple plates can be added at once. Advantages of the barbell are its ease in set up; progression requiring only adding more plates; enabling the entire body to function as a coordinated unit; making heavy lifting easier; and imparting an even load when the bar is resting on the upper back for exercises such as the squat. Disadvantage are that the arms don’t work independently, creating a strength imbalance in the weaker arm; recruiting less stabilizing muscles than with dumbbells; injury or even death resulting from the barbell crushing the neck if doing a chest press with heavy weight and no spotter; and limiting range of motion (ROM) to up and down only.


Dumbbells, or free weights, can go from very light to very heavy and are very versatile in that they can be used at home, in the office or at the gym. The advantages are the variety of exercises that can be done without any constraint; allowing muscle isolation while still engaging major muscle groups such as those of the chest and legs; improvingbalance and coordination by activating small, stabilizing muscles; permitting adjustment if a body part has a limited range of motion; and developing muscle tension in both the concentric (raising) and eccentric (lowering) phases of many exercises. Disadvantages are requiring a spotter for heavy lifting since it demands more control; increased risk of injury from dropping the weights; requiring different weight for various exercises; and progression requiring a new set of dumbbells.

Cable Crossover Machine

Cable crossover uses a pulley for resistance and the height can be adjusted from all theway up to all the way down for a variety of exercises. Some machines also have rotatingarms that, besides rotating vertically, also rotate horizontally to accommodate nearly any movement pattern. Depending on the executed exercise, attachments are utilized from ropes, to handles, to ankle cuffs, to bars of various length and shape. The advantages are that it can be used by two people simultaneously; versatility of the machine, allowing variety from multiple angles and directions; allowing users to quickly move from one exercise to the next just by changing the pulleys height, weight stack and attachment; providing muscles greater stress from constant tension; and allowing unilateral exercises (working one side of the body at a time) to strengthen imbalance; Disadvantages are not engaging the stabilizing muscles as much since machines lifts the weight; labels showing exercises but not explaining settings or form; requiring regular maintenance; and being too bulky and expensive for home use.

Resistance Machines

Resistance machines, found in most gyms, come in many shape and styles and can be used sitting, lying, or standing. The advantages are labels explaining its use; movements being guided through a fixed range of motion; the ability to focus on one muscle group at a time; muscles being supported instead of having to work to stay there; ability to train heavier without assistance; and sitting position allowing those with balance or leg injury to still exercise; Disadvantages are machines requiring a gym membership; movements being limited and not functional to everyday life; stabilizing muscles not being recruited; sitting position not engaging the core or balance, especiallysince most people sit at a desk all day long; incorrect settings increasing the risk of injury; and not allowing unilateral training which helps identify weakness on one side.

Include All

As you can see each has its own advantages and disadvantages, therefore, your fitnessregimen can include the use of each one. If you want to go very heavy, use a machine; if you want to strengthen each side independently from the other, use dumbbells; if you want to quickly change between body parts worked, such as upper and lower body or biceps and triceps, use the cable crossover; and if you want to work on your legs with heavy weight, a barbell is more comfortable than bulky dumbbells. Whatever equipmentyou choose to use, remember to exercise regularly, to eat fruits and vegetables, and most importantly to have fun while doing it.

About the Author
aris-akavanAris Akavan, ACE certified Personal Trainer & Lifestyle and Weight Management Coach, is owner of Body Fitness by Aris. Her mission is to assist others in leading a healthier lifestyle by balancing exercise and proper eating habits to achieve the ultimate body & mind wellness. Aris leads by example as she practices what she preaches. She leads an alcohol free and smoke free lifestyle and has worked out while following proper nutrition practices for over 10 years. In the last few years she also started participating in 5k races, adventure runs and triathlons. You can visit Aris at any of her following:

Web Site: http://www.bodyfitnessbyaris.com
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